A project to speed up the South Shore Line's service has funding commitments now from three of the four counties along the line.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority voted unanimously Thursday to commit $3 million a year for 30 years, on behalf of Lake and Porter counties, toward the South Shore's double-track project. The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District is seeking a federal grant for half of the estimated $290 million cost to build a second set of tracks between Gary and Michigan City. Local funding commitments, to cover the other half, have come so far from the Indiana General Assembly and, with recent actions by LaPorte County and the RDA, three of the four Indiana counties served by the South Shore. St. Joseph County is expected to vote soon.

NICTD has said the South Shore's service would be faster and more reliable with two sets of tracks from Michigan City to the Illinois border. The trains run on Metro tracks in Chicago.

Bill Hanna, the RDA's president and CEO, has said the double-tracking would strengthen Northwest Indiana's connection to Chicago's labor market and boost the region's economy. He has promoted the use of transit-development districts – authorized this year by the Indiana General Assembly – to develop businesses and housing near stations along the line.

Michael Noland, NICTD's president and general manager, thanked Hanna and RDA members after the meeting for their support.

NICTD's chances for getting a Federal Transit Administration grant will be much better, he said, when it can show complete local funding support.

RDA members didn't debate the funding proposal, but Gary resident Jim Nowacki did. He contended that massive spending on lengthening the Gary airport's main runway has not increased air traffic there, and he doubted that improving the South Shore would boost development near its stations.

"Shame on the RDA," he said, "for constantly planning big-money projects."

The RDA now has committed $11 million of its $17.5 million annual budget, Hanna said, toward the South Shore's double-track and West Lake Corridor projects. The latter would extend train service along a new line from Hammond to Dyer.

The RDA also voted Thursday, with a rare dissent, to authorize spending up to $2.9 million for services by KPMG, an international auditing and consulting firm, on the two South Shore projects.

Phil Taillon, Hammond's appointee to the RDA, questioned the need for the KPMG contract now, before the Federal Transit Administration begins evaluating those projects. The FTA's rating process is expected to begin in September.

Hanna and Noland contended, though, that the contract will show the FTA that the RDA has the capacity now to support the project.

Also Thursday, the RDA authorized a $56,500 contract with Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, a Plano, Texas- based company, for a study on the feasibility of establishing a convention center in Lake County. The company has provided advice on convention, sports and leisure projects around the country, including Porter County.

The Lake County Council asked for the study after the announcement last year that the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza, in Merrillville, where many meetings and events had been held, would be demolished.

The CSL study, which is to take less than six months, will examine the feasibility and demand for a convention center, whether it would contribute to the area's economic development, where it could be located, and the best funding sources for it.

RDA member Thomas Golab, a governor's appointee, said he wanted more information on "what's driving the economics of that decision."

Hanna said the study was designed to answer the economic feasibility question. He noted that the firm was selected by a committee of non-RDA members who studied proposals from five companies. RDA member Randy Palmateer, a Lake County appointee, said the county "sorely needs" a convention center.

Tim Zorn is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune