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Beyond Chicagoland

Hoosier transit provider? A look at expanded transit options in northwest Indiana

A South Shore Connect bus waits to pick up passengers on Monday afternoon at the Dune Park South Shore Line station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

In recent years, the city of Valparaiso, Indiana, and the National Park Service  took steps to improve public transit throughout Indiana’s Porter County, making it easier than ever for local residents to reach Chicago -- and making it easier for Chicagoans to visit the big city and Indiana Dunes National Park.

For over 10 years, Valparaiso residents had two public transit options to get to Chicago: the ChicagoGo Dash rush hour express bus and the Orange Line, a route in the city's V-Line bus system, which connected Valparaiso University and the South Shore Line’s Dune Park station. In August 2019, the city rebranded the Orange Line as South Shore Connect and expanded service to include the entire week, while increasing off-peak and evening hours during weekdays.

Meanwhile, the national park has been adding shuttle buses to make it easier for South Shore Line riders coming in from Chicago to reach its beaches and other destinations. The service proved to be popular enough to be expanded from one route to two, and the park is looking to expand it even further.

For over a hundred years, the South Shore Line has run between Chicago and South Bend, the home of the University of Notre Dame, linking several communities near Lake Michigan. Many of those towns have their own fixed-route bus service, but Porter County is unusual in that the transit service that’s there has nothing to do with the communities the South Shore Line serves.

Valparaiso’s South Shore Connect/Orange Line Route

Valparaiso is located around 15 miles south of the South Shore Line's Dune Park station. For much of its history, a rush hour commuter train colloquially known as Valpo Local connected it to Chicago. But that service was shut down in May 1, 1991, after the state of Indiana declined to subsidize it. While drivers could reach Dune Park and take the South Shore Line the rest of the way, there was no public transit option.

By 2008, there was some discussion about adding two South Shore Line branches – one that would go to Vapariaso and one that would split off at Hammond and go as far south as Lowell. To help show that there is a demand for more direct service, the city launched the ChicaGo Dash rush hour express bus. And, to make it easier for Valparaiso University students, seniors and people with disabilities to get to Dune Park station, V-Line launched the Orange Line route, which operated on Fridays and weekends.

The Orange Line's weekend schedule worked pretty well whether you were heading to Chicago or to Valparaiso – the bus would arrive in Dune Park in time to catch the Chicago-bound train and wait until the next eastbound train was scheduled to arrive. But on Fridays, the schedule was clearly geared toward getting riders on Chicago-bound trains in the afternoon and picking them up from the station in the evening.

But at least on Fridays, it was  possible to take the ChicaGo Dash bus into Valparaiso and then take an Orange Line bus to Dune Park to catch the last Chicago-bound train. Monday through Thursday, ChicaGo Dash was the only transit service between Chicago and Valparaiso, which made day trips between Chicago and Valparaiso completely impossible and restricted Valparaiso residents who wished to visit Chicago to work hours. During the weekend, Valparaiso residents could, for example, attend a concert in Chicago and still get back before midnight, but that simply wasn't an option on most weekdays.

Don Lorntzen , Valparaiso's transit manager, explained that the city's decision to expand the Orange Line came down to something completely out of the city’s control: Airport Supersaver, an intercity bus service operated by CoachUSA. As the name implies,  it links Michigan City and several Northwest Indiana municipalities that aren’t served by South Shore Line to Midway, O’Hare and South Bend Regional Airport. In November 2017, it added a stop in Valparaiso, providing a weekday off-peak transit connection to Chicago while also adding a more direct transit connection to Porter, Highland and Michigan City. But CoachUSA eliminated the Valpo stop in August 2018, citing a shortage of bus drivers.

“When they decided to pull out of Valparaiso, [the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority] wanted to supply people with another option to get to Chicago during the week,” Lorntzen said. “To compliment the Dash service and to provide that extra weekday service, we  came up with the shuttle.” He said the NIRD Authority provided matching funds to operate the expanded service, while the South Shore Line provided matching funds to advertise it.

The South Shore Connect addresses all the Orange Line's shortcomings. While it doesn't run during rush hours so as not to compete with ChicaGo Dash, it provide off-peak and evening service, with weekday service now scheduled similar to weekend service to allow convenient transfers in both directions. And the route was changed slightly – instead of starting at Valparaiso University, it continues to ChicaGo Dash commuter parking lot. The later is useful even if you're coming from Chicago – the commuter parking lot is within walking distance of downtown Valparaiso.

The South Shore Connect buses have free Wi-Fi that, in my experience, worked pretty well. For the first three months, the service is free, but Lorntzen said that, effective November 1, riders will have to pay V-Line’s regular $1.00 fare. Riders can get a free transfer to any other V-Line route.

(Transit pro-tip: Friday through Sunday, South Shore Connect buses become Red Route buses after they stop at ChicaGo Dash park-and-ride, and some Red Route buses become South Shore connect buses. Since Red Route reaches most of the city during off-peak, evening and weekend hours, that’s a pretty useful one-seat connection.)

Lorntzen said that the new service brought in almost 200 riders as of this September. Most of the passengers were still Valparaiso students, he said, but he noticed that some riders from South Bend were using it to get to Valparaiso. And he said ridership spiked during Lollapalooza and Valparaiso’s annual popcorn festival.

My observations seem to bear out the overall pattern. When I visited Valparaiso a few weeks ago, five other people rode the 2 p.m. bus to Valparaiso with me. Three of them were a student and her family and two were Valparaiso townies. I was the only person on the 6:40 PM bus back to Dune Park, but I saw that two people who got off the eastbound South Shore Line train got on the bus as it prepared to head back.

Lorntzen said that he hopes that Valparaiso residents take advantage of South Shore Connect to catch Bears games in Chicago, Fighting Irish games at the Notre Dame and other sporting events. As he noted, the South Shore Line adjusts its schedules to accommodate riders traveling to football games in either direction. “[South Shore Connect] is working out very well."

An Indiana Dunes shuttle.
An Indiana Dunes shuttle.
An Indiana Dunes shuttle.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Shuttles

Indiana Dunes National Park , formerly Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore -- it became a national park last February is one of Northwest Indiana’s biggest attractions. Stretching from the east end of Gary to the west edge of Michigan City, it encompasses a decent chunk of the forest and dunes along the Porter County lakeshore. Somewhat confusingly, it doesn’t include Indiana Dunes State Park.

The South Shore Line has several stations at or near the two parks. The aforementioned Dune Park station is located near the state park, while Miller, Ogden Dunes and Beverly Shores stations have traditionally been used to reach various portions of the national park. The beaches and the dunes aren’t that far from the stations, but it’s still a bit of a hike, roughly a mile.

That’s why it’s no surprise that, in 2016, National Park Service launched a free shuttle that travels between South Shore Line’s Miller station, Lake Street Beach and several destinations throughout the western portion of the national park. In 2018, it launched another shuttle, the Eastern Park shuttle, that ran between Dunewood Campground (a short walk from Beverly Shores South Shore Line station), Kemill Beach and Great Lakes Research Center. Both shuttles run in loops, and they only run on weekends and federal holidays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

While the area near Miller station already had some bus service, -- the Gary Public Transportation Corporation’s Route L2 -- but the area around Beverly Shores had no bus service whatsoever.

Bruce Rowe, spokesperson for Indiana Dunes National Park, said that they launched the shuttle for two reasons: to “encourage the use of public transportation to beaches and to reduce congestion at our smaller beach parking lots.”

The West Shuttle route schedule seemed geared toward picking up Chicago-bound riders and getting them back in time to catch the train back -- it arrives before the eastbound trains arrive and heads back out before the westbound trains arrive. the East Shuttle route runs once every 20-30 minutes, so there is more flexibility.

Rowe explained that the park funded all aspects of the service through grants. And he said that, so far, the service has been getting popular with visitors. This summer, 2,442 people rode the shuttles,” Rowe said. “We are hoping to get larger buses in the near future so we can expand the program.”

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