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NICTD board approves financing arrangements to ease potential Metra bottleneck

South Shore Line

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) board has agreed to issue up to $200 million in bonds to ease a potential bottleneck in Chicago. NICTD is partnering with Metra to convert a storage track into a fourth mainline track between 11th Street and Millennium Station, with new station platforms at Millennium and Van Buren. That would help make way for the 26 additional trains NICTD plans to run, once the Double Track and West Lake Corridor projects are complete.

NICTD President Mike Noland told board members Monday that NICTD is covering the majority of the cost. "There's a lot of capacity on the Metra system," Noland explained. "It's a quadruple-track railroad. But when the quadruple track gets to downtown Chicago, to the heart of the terminal, it goes from four tracks to three tracks."

Noland said F.H. Paschen will oversee the civil construction, while Metra crews will install the track, crossovers and overhead wire. He expects work to start late this winter and continue until 2026.

In the meantime, Noland is confident there'll be enough capacity for the new trains scheduled to start running in 2024 and 2025. "One of the things that's benefited us is that Metra reduced their schedule during COVID on [the Metra Electric District] significantly, so there's not as much demand through the peak periods of time, when we're running the most trains," Noland said.

The drop in demand also prompted Metra to lease 26 of its train cars to NICTD, which should finally start arriving in the next few weeks. They were originally scheduled to start arriving in January after a rehabilitation project, but Noland said that was delayed, when a seating manufacturer went out of business.

At the same time, the agreements that allow NICTD trains to use Metra's track to reach downtown Chicago were renewed through 2029. Noland said that avoids the need for months or possibly years of negotiations.

"This will give us tremendous stability," Noland told board members. "We don't have to up open up and argue about relative share and costs going up and ridership going down."

NICTD pays Metra to use its tracks, but Metra also pays NICTD to provide service to Hegewisch, which is in Metra's territory.

Michael Gallenberger is a news reporter and producer that hosts All Things Considered on 89.1 FM | Lakeshore Public Media.