Planners consider public transportation to air show at Fair Oaks

 

March 15, 2014 5:00 am Rob Earnshaw, Times Correspondent

 

HAMMOND ¦ Local residents who rely on public transportation and hope to attend the 2014 South Shore Air Show at Fair Oaks Farms may get to do so.

Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore CVA said during a meeting of a group formed in 2012 to improve access to public transportation, said he he is interested in working with them to explore bringing people to the air show.

 

“We understand not everyone is fortunate enough to have their own transportation and we have many people in our society who rely on additional support and help,” Batistatos said.

“We wanted to be proactive and send a strong signal to our community that while the location may be changing, our commitment and compassion is not.”

 

ACT NOW, which stands for Accessing Community Transportation in Northwest Indiana, is a coalition of groups that include disabled rights group Everybody Counts, the North Township Trustee's office, the Gary Public Transportation Corp. and East Chicago Transit.

 

Batistatos spoke to the group at the Indiana Welcome Center where all parties agreed to figure out how transportation to the air show would work and see if there is a sufficient public demand.

 

The air show is July 11, 12 and 13, and if transit were provided it would most likely be for the Saturday show with buses dropping riders off at the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point who would then take shuttles to Fair Oaks.

 

ACT NOW plans to meet next week with the Lake County Fair board to discuss repeating last year’s “transit day” that provided bus transportation to the fairgrounds.

 

“They’re enthusiastic about repeating last year’s transit day,” said David Wright, GPTC planning and marketing director.

 

Wright also announced a public forum will be held at 2 p.m. on March 21 at Merrillville Town Hall to gain input on a planning project to improve public transportation on the Broadway corridor. The GPTC was awarded a grant of $50,000 in 2013 to study transit and mobility on Broadway in Lake County.

 

Wright said Gary and Merrillville are enthusiastic about it, but Crown Point wants additional input from its business owners on Broadway.

 

“It’s an important corridor,” Wright said.

 

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Protesters want chance to be heard at NIRPC meetings

Susan Erler susan.erler@nwi.com (219) 662-5336

October 16, 2013 3:03 pm

CROWN POINT | Protesters waved signs and chanted Wednesday outside Crown Point City Hall over what they said is their right to free speech. 

Rudy Velasco, one of eight members of Citizens for Accessible Transportation taking part in the protest, said the group and other advocates of disability rights and accessible transportation for the region had been denied the ability to speak at meetings of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Transportation Commission.

Velasco, of East Chicago, referred to action taken by Crown Point Mayor David Uran, who is NIRPC chairman, to declare the public can comment only on matters at NIRPC meetings that are on the agenda for that day's meeting.

"Uran is refusing us if we're not on the agenda," Velasco said. "He's restricting our public speech."

 Members of the group chanted, "King Uran, let us speak."

 Uran said Wednesday the decision to limit comments to agenda items was done so the NIRPC board can conduct business.

 "We want to have constructive conversations," Uran said.

 Those with concerns should reach out to the person who represents their community on the NIRPC board and have them put their topic on the agenda, Uran said."That would let us help them with issues we actually have the ability to address, rather than for them to filibuster so we can't get any work done," Uran said.

Since this spring, the disability rights group Everybody Counts and NIRPC have been locked in a struggle over NIRPC's public participation plan.

 The group contends a public participation plan NIRPC has been working on for more than a year is inadequate and deprives the public of its right to participate in NIRPC actions.

A lawyer who represents Everybody Counts recently sent federal transportation officials a letter alleging NIRPC's public participation plan is inadequate and puts it in violation of the law.

The letter also contends a $724.8 million transportation plan recently passed by NIRPC is invalid because of the shortcomings in the plan and a lack of public notice of meetings.

Times Reporter Keith Benman contributed to this story.

 

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Group protests NW Indiana panel's comment rules

October 16, 2013 5:39 pm

Demonstrators protested outside the office of Crown Point Mayor David Uran Wednesday over their inability to make comments during meetings of a regional commission he chairs. The group of about eight demonstrators waved signs and chanted, "King Uran, let us speak," during the protest outside City Hall in

Crown Point, about 12 miles south of Gary. Rudy Velasco of Citizens for Accessible Transportation said his group and other advocates of disability rights and

accessible transportation have been denied the right to speak out before the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. Uran has said the public can comment only on agenda items during the panel's meetings, The (Munster) Times reported ( http://bit.ly/1erOMdW).

"Uran is refusing us if we're not on the agenda," Velasco said. "He's restricting our public speech."

Uran said his decision to limit comments to agenda items was made so the NIRPC board can conduct its business. Those with concerns should reach out to the

person who represents their community on the panel and have them put their topic on the agenda, he said

"That would let us help them with issues we actually have the ability to address, rather than for them to filibuster so we can't get any work done," Uran said.

The disability rights group Everybody Counts claims a public participation plan the commission has been working on for more than a year is inadequate and deprives the public of its right to participate in the commission's work.

October 16, 2013 3:03 pm

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NIRPC approves three major transportation resolutions

September 19, 2013 2:19 pm  •  Lu Ann Franklin Times Business Columnist

PORTAGE | Three resolutions addressing significant transportation issues throughout Northwest Indiana gained the approval of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission executive board at Thursday’s meeting.

All three resolutions came to the executive board with positive recommendations from NIRPC’s transportation policy committee and are in line with NIRPC’s 2040 Plan, said Merrillville town councilman Shawn Pettit, committee chairman.

NIRPC supports the continuation and maintenance of Amtrak’s Hoosier state service through funding by the Indiana Department of Transportation. That daily passenger train service connects Indianapolis with Chicago with a stop in Dyer.

Support of this resolution “is contingent upon there being no adverse financial impact on state funding for any public transit providers in the State of Indiana,” the document reads.

An amendment to the 2014-17 Transportation Improvement Program for Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties was also approved despite repeated past attempts by the disability advocacy group Everybody Counts to prevent that action, based on what the group saw as lack of notice.

According to a letter to NIRPC executive director Ty Warner from NIRPC attorney David Hollenbeck, there was “no legal impediment which would have prevented the unconditional approval of the Resolution.”

This resolution covers 201 projects in communities including East Chicago, Gary, LaPorte, Michigan City and Valparaiso as well as such agencies as North Township, Opportunity Enterprises, Porter County Aging & Community Services and South Lake County Community Services.

NIRPC Transportation Projects Manager Gary Evers said the TIP also includes bus replacement and support of projects proposed by Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District for South Shore service.

A total of $114.9 million in federal funding will be used for the 2014-17 TIP.

The final resolution features a second amendment to the TIP for projects by the Indiana Department of Transportation.

Evers told the board INDOT requested specific changes. Some projects were added, including bridge work and road rehabilitation. Other projects were deleted by INDOT including intersection and pipeline work.

INDOT is adding three rail crossing protection projects, he said. Two are CSX crossings in Dyer, at Sheffield Avenue and 77th Street. The third is the CSX crossing at 93rd Avenue in St. John.

Executive Board Chairman and Crown Point Mayor David Uran declared the use of Roberts Rules of Order at all future meetings he chairs. Those rules allow public comments only on points on the agenda.

He also said future communication between Everybody Counts would need to be between Hollenbeck and the group’s attorney Steve Siros.

Those actions brought negative reaction from Torres and others from Everybody Counts.

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Maximize full access for all, all of the time

Guest Commentary

September 06, 2013 12:00 am  •  By Teresa Torres

Prejudice: Any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.

Discrimination: Unfair treatment of a person, racial group, minority, etc; action based on prejudice.

These words are most often heard in discussions about race or ethnicity. But they also apply to people with disabilities, who represent all races and ethnicities, all ages, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, sizes and shapes. They are your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, and one of these days, if you live long enough, they are you.

People with disabilities are lazy. And they are ambitious. They are pleasant. And they are obnoxious. In other words, they are unique individuals, just like everybody else. Having a disability doesn’t imbue someone with specific personality qualities or individual strengths or weaknesses.

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects the civil rights of these individuals and their families. Those who fought for its passage sought only equality – the chance for a level playing field. Unfortunately, in pockets of this nation – including Northwest Indiana – there continues to be a pervasive perception they are "special" people who need and want special treatment.

Special means different. Different means other than. All of that begets prejudice, which leads to discrimination. And that leads to "separateness." Whether it originates in hate, fear or pity, the results can be devastating.

For example, a friend of mine happens to walk with the help of crutches, and sometimes she uses a scooter to get around. She also happens to have two master’s degrees and has traveled the country as a speaker and trainer. She has a husband, two cats and a busy career. Her life is quite full and happy, and she is uninterested in either being pitied or being called inspirational.

Quite by accident, she found herself at a local recreational event on a day that had been set aside for "people with special needs," or as one event worker called it, “handicapped day.” To her horror, many vendors treated her like a toddler, discounted her purchases and said they would pray for her.

Imagine, if you will, how such treatment might be received by a mom or dad who had a disability taking children out for a fun family day. Suddenly, mom isn’t cool; she’s an embarrassment. Or maybe one of the kids has an obvious disability that causes the guy running the ride to unnecessarily deny access to a ride. Dad gets upset and takes everybody home, and the other kids resent their sibling.

Perhaps those who established "special days" were hoping to minimize these types of situations when they decided to set up a separate and distinct event. But these good intentions perpetuate exclusion, rather than promote inclusion. We encourage them to revisit this concept and instead take steps to maximize full access for all, all of the time.

Teresa Torres is executive director of Everybody Counts. The opinions are the writer's.

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NIRPC transportation plan hits another roadblock

August 29, 2013 6:00 pm  •  By Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission ran into another potential delay Thursday on its four-year, $724.8 million transportation plan, while an earlier delay already is taking its toll on state road and local transit projects.

NIRPC Transportation Projects Manager Gary Evers told commissioners at their regular meeting the agency failed to give a 30-day notice of public meetings on the plan as required by a 2006 consent decree.

"INDOT projects are being harmed by our delay as we speak," Evers told a room packed with commissioners and the public. "To INDOT, there is definite harm in this delay."

If implementation of the plan has to be delayed again, it could affect the timing of NIRPC votes on the Illiana Expressway and Interstate 65 expansion. NIRPC had hoped to have those major projects ready for a vote in October.

In July, NIRPC had to call off a vote on the same four-year transportation plan when the disability rights group Everybody Counts pointed out no public meetings had taken place as required by federal regulations. That set the plan approval back one month as the meetings took place.

On Thursday, the commission approved the plan on a voice vote with some dissenting votes, but it was contingent on review by the agency's lawyer. If attorney David Hollenbeck says the plan was duly approved, it should free up the Indiana Department of Transportation and local transit agencies to proceed with projects.

But if Hollenbeck finds the lack of a 30-day notice of meetings was a "fatal flaw," it would take at least two more months to bring the plan up for a vote again.

The 2006 federal court consent decree that contains the 30-day notice provision came about because of a lawsuit brought by the disability-rights group Everybody Counts over alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Members of Everybody Counts and other disability-rights groups came to Thursday's meeting with protest signs with messages like "Equal Rides" and "We are the real stakeholders."

Everybody Counts has been negotiating and working with an ad-hoc NIRPC committee to create a new public participation plan for the commission. A new draft plan — some are hoping will be the final plan — was delivered to the NIRPC chairman this week.

But the group is having its biggest effect right now on the agency's four-year transportation plan. Roy Dominguez, a former Lake County Sheriff and an Everybody Counts board member, said the group will review any decision Hollenbeck makes on the lack of the 30-day notice.

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We challenge NIRPC to lead on public transit

Guest Commentary:

By Roy Dominguez

 The Times August 13, 2013 10:51 am

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission’s website states NIRPC “provides a forum that enables the citizens of Northwest Indiana to address regional issues relating to transportation, the environment and community, and economic development.” Unfortunately, that forum has certainly has not been as inclusive as it should.

Most citizens aren’t even aware of the transportation planning role NIRPC plays as a metropolitan planning organization.

Federal Transit Administration and Federal Highway Administration officials recently noted Northwest Indiana is not following the national movement to maximize use of public transportation.

Despite millions of dollars spent on special studies and special reports, Lake County’s transportation systems remain unconnected. Some even believe that rather than being the catalyst for a regional system, NIRPC has been the greatest barrier.

Instead of learning from past mistakes and moving in a different direction, such as supporting the largest public transit system already in place, NIRPC seems to be content to just sweep it all under the rug. Not only is there no conversation about improved public transit taking place now, it isn’t even on the horizon.

An ever-growing percentage of our population are senior citizens, and people with disabilities. These valuable neighbors don't just need to go to the doctor, they also want and need to work, to shop, to recreate — to live their lives like everyone else. An effective regional public transit service would also benefit our young people and those struggling to exist in these difficult times. And those concerned about our environment support expansion of public transportation as well.

Millions of dollars have gone to consultants to write reports, but very little real conversation has taken place with those who actually use public transit services, those who would do so if those services better met local needs, or the local business, social service and health care communities.

If recommendations on how to actively solicit meaningful input are to be followed, NIRPC must undertake a sincere effort to make more residents aware of the substantial role NIRPC plays in building our future. By actively discouraging those who indicate a willingness to become more involved, NIRPC is doing our entire community a disservice.

NIRPC is considering a transportation improvement plan which allocates almost $750 million in governmental funding. Simply doling out dollars to the same transit providers to continue providing the same patchwork services will do nothing to address the real need.

We challenge NIRPC to put aside egos, prejudice and history, and instead take the lead in bringing all of the stakeholders to the table to find a way forward. Do more than just meet the minimum requirements for public involvement. 

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Some funding for bus agency still possible

MERRRILLVILLE — Legislation to fund the Regional Bus Authority might be close to dead this legislative session, but language that could get it $9.5 million in funding from a seemingly forgotten fund could still see the light of day.

Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen Jr. told the 13-member quorum at Wednesday night’s RBA meeting that state Sen. Earline Rogers has drafted a proposal that would transfer to the agency funds from a $300 homestead tax credit given to low-income and differently abled people in the 2001 House Enrolled Act 1902. She had originally intended to insert it into the land-based casino legislation, but since that won’t be taken up until next year, Rogers is looking for another bill in which to attach it. The specific funding bill, Rep. Linda Lawson’s H.B. 1110, was not likely to move out of committee this session.

Transit-related bills would be the best option, RBA Executive Director Tim Brown said.

“Since the RBA provides service to (low-income and differently abled), it would revenue-neutral,” Allen said. “It would just be a matter of readjusting where the money goes.”

Board member and former Lake County Councilman Tom O’Donnell pointed out that while the state did give them money from the credit, the state did eventually make the county pay it back via casino revenue. The money is now available, he said, because the county paid the state whatever it was owed, and the tax would again be regarded as a surplus.

“The council might not be happy about reallocating the money,” he said. “I would be surprised if they want to redirect, especially with the jail issues they have to find a way to pay for.”

The money’s use, however, is at the discretion of General Assembly, not the council, Allen said.

If the money were to be reallocated, Allen said $4.7 million of it would come from casino revenues, and Gary, Hammond and East Chicago would give $1.6 million apiece. The RBA would likely bet he primary beneficiary because it’s the one in danger of running out of money, but that language could be amended to include Gary’s, Hammond’s and East Chicago’s transit systems if pressed.

To that end, Brown said he has established a calendar outlining the dates for the RBA shutdown should it happen by June. Public hearings regarding the shutdown will be held March 29th and April 26th at the Hammond Public Library and Purdue University Calumet, though times have not been established.

In other business, the board signed a resolution supporting coordinated and cooperative transit initiatives and heard from Chicago-based attorney Steve Siros regarding the progress on the Council for Accessible Transportation (CAT) agreement. The agreement has been signed by both the RBA and Everybody Counts, but Siros said there’s still a lot of bugs in the system that’ll likely need to be overseen by a court-appointed monitor.

“There’ll be costs, but I think it’ll be much cheaper than having to pay (RBA attorney Dave Hollenbeck) each time there’s a disagreement,” Siros said. “There continues to be a failure to communicate.”

The CAT, in the meantime, will hold its spring training session at the RailCats stadium in Gary, said Everybody Counts Executive Director Teresa Torres. The RBA will pay up to $30,000 in fixed costs for the training, with additional funds available for sign-language interpreters if necessary.

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Training shows differently abled public transit rights

GARY — Anita Cameron saw first-hand how bad it was for the differently abled when she was an information agent for the Chicago Transit Authority. It took such a toll on her sense of justice, she became an activist for the American Disabled for American Public Transit (ADAPT).

She told the crowded Railcats Stadium room during the Everybody Counts’ inaugural training session on Creating Councils on Accessible Transportation (CATs) that they can get things done as long as they’re willing to work and never stop.

“(The Denver Transit Authority) went from hating our guts to having mad respect and love for us,” Cameron said after relaying what’s known as the differently abled’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” the 1974 incident where 19 wheelchair users lay down in front of a bus to protest Denver’s not having lift-ready buses. Soon after, the city became one of the first to be 100 percent ADA-compliant.

The group came together for the training as a result of the 10-year-old lawsuit the Merrrillville advocacy group lodged against the Regional Bus Authority, executive director Teresa Torres said. The attendees, mostly from Gary and East Chicago, will get a crash course in their financial and legal rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They’ll then elect a core group who’ll set about organizing the differently abled to set out and educate, she said.

“One of the differences we have here (with our lawsuit) is that instead of the politicians telling us what they think we need, the riders will go forth and create the rules,” Torres said.

Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen Jr. lauded the group’s effort and admitted he never expected the RBA to go in the direction it did: from a funded entity with its own levy to a new authority with 50 percent funding by the county and 50 percent from Hammond, East Chicago and Gary casino funds. But if he and the CAT can convince legislators to get on the same page, they might be able to turn it around.

That could include a 1 percent county tax.

“The Department of Justice is forcing a lot of changes at the county jail, and it’s getting to the point that the county isn’t going to be able to afford to be in compliance without adopting an income tax,” he said.

“We might be able to make sure the funding goes where it needs to go.”

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GUEST COMMENTARY: RBA shutdown wouldn't be a catastrophe

www.nwitimes.com

By Teresa Torres | Posted: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 12:00 am

Unfortunately, the Times' recent editorial regarding the potential shutdown of the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Service blurred the facts substantially.

It was irresponsible and misleading to represent the RBA as what it was supposed to become, rather than what it in fact became. Its "demise" would not necessarily mean "the collapse of bus services in Northwest Indiana."

"Shutting down all RBA services" would impact only what used to be called the Hammond Transit System. That's not good, but it's not the "buspocalypse" the editorial described.

It would have no immediate impact on the larger, more efficient Gary Public Transportation Services, nor East Chicago Public Transit. It would make no significant impact on area demand-response services, which sadly no longer serve the whole county.

There are many people whose very lives would be in jeopardy without public transit. And a truly effective, efficient, county-wide system that actually met the actual need would benefit everyone in the community. But what we have is even more disjointed than it was before the RBA was funded.

The RBA was supposed to market and garner support for public transportation in general, and to facilitate the merger of existing transit systems. Instead, it has widened the community divide that was already problematic, and decided -- against very expensive advice -- that it was qualified to create a whole new system.

Its many critics cite unqualified and inexperienced staff, clear conflicts of interest, false reporting, no fiscal accountability, poor planning, limited oversight, no effort to involve the community, back-room meetings, strong-arm tactics, disrespect for the ridership and refusal to follow federal law.

There is definitely need for a permanent transportation funding source. But not another dollar should be entrusted to an entity which has proven to be such a tremendous failure.

The choices are not limited to either funding the RBA or shutting down the entire public transit system in Northwest Indiana. The unedited consultant's report paid for with tax dollars provided many other options.

Its time to look at them.

Teresa Torres is executive director of Everybody Counts. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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Funding search continues to vex RDA

www.nwitimes.com

By Lu Ann Franklin Times Correspondent | Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 9:15 pm

MERRILLVILLE | Even as the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority prepares to shut down one bus route and reduce service on two others within the week, the agency also is making plans to eliminate all bus service.

With funding running out, the first public hearing on dissolution of Regional Bus Authority service will be held in November, although an exact date isn't known, RBA Executive Director Tim Brown said during Monday's monthly board meeting.

The two-year contracts for fixed route and paratransit bus service are slated to end by June 30.

Some federal funding to reimburse the RBA for those contracts will be coming next year, but when it will arrive isn't known, Brown said.

To save money in the RBA's dwindling bank account, the Hammond Brown Line will end after Friday's runs. The Red and Green lines will be reduced to an hourly schedule. Those routes will run with three buses going in an alternating counterclockwise and clockwise fashion.

Finding a local funding source for operations continues to vex the RBA, Brown said. Some casino revenue still might be available, he said.

Funding was provided by the Regional Development Authority starting in 2005.

However, Brown told the board, the RDA won't fund operational costs any longer. The RDA will supply grants for capital expenses, such as the purchase of new buses and equipment. In addition, federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds will be available sometime next year for the Express Bus service.

The RBA applied for CMAQ funds in 2006, but the money couldn't be used. "The CMAQ dollars have been sitting there," Brown said. The RBA will file grant paperwork to receive those funds.

It's possible that if the CMAQ funds are realized, the RBA could restore full service on the Red and Green lines, Brown said.

Meanwhile, the RBA and Everybody Counts, a disabilities advocacy group, are nearing final agreement on a policy and procedures manual required by a federal court consent decree to provide demand and fixed route services.

A draft of the manual was presented to board members at the meeting.

RBA board President Richard Hardaway recommended board members read the manual, particularly portions dealing with the long-disputed complaint policy and the Americans with Disabilities Act policy and procedure section.

The board voted to postpone final adoption until its Oct. 31 meeting.

During a presentation on the federal consent decree, Everybody Counts' attorney Genevieve Essig presented an unsuccessful request for the manual to be adopted more quickly.

"Everybody Counts feels very strongly that (the policy manual) should be completed as expeditiously as possible," Essig said. "Waiting until your October meeting is a very long time."

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Disabled to advise city bus services

Training for an advisory group of disabled people for the Gary and East Chicago bus systems is finally getting under way after years of legal disputes.

It’s about time, local officials say.

The training, scheduled for October, is to get volunteers ready to serve on Councils on Accessible Transportation that will advise both Gary and East Chicago, Teresa Torres, executive director of Everybody Counts, said.

The training and councils are part of a legal agreement the two bus systems reached with Everybody Counts, but Torres said she’s pleased with how receptive the two groups have been.

“I cannot say enough about how cooperative Gary and East Chicago have been in making certain that this is a successful endeavor,” Torres said.

Daryl Lampkins, general manager for GPTC, said it took longer than he wished to get the program going. Originally the Regional Bus Authority was supposed to be part of it.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Up to 50 people, most of whom are disabled and live in either Gary or East Chicago, will undergo training from Oct. 25-27 on how to take part in a CAT and how to create one based on Gary’s and East Chicago’s needs. People who participate will then select among themselves representatives to the CATs, who will then make up the bylaws and help form the groups, Torres said.

The idea is for the groups to advise Gary and East Chicago on how their services affect the disabled and what works and what doesn’t. Lampkins said having the group will help Gary save resources because GPTC won’t have to expend time on a policy only to find out after it’s finished that there are problems with it, he said.

Lampkins said he would have an employee attend CAT meetings to bring back suggestions and ideas. GPTC would then study each suggestion and weigh whether it could be incorporated.

“It can only benefit our agency in terms of adhering to federal regulations,” Lampkins said.

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NWI Times EDITORIAL: Strengthen RDA's ethics rules

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010 12:00 am

Our opinion: Harley Snyder and Carmen Fernandez should have revealed their ownership of land in Porter before the RDA voted to spend money that involves that land. Then they should have abstained from voting.

When the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority was building its legal framework, it took great pains to ensure that the agency would operate with the utmost ethics. It seems a new plank is now needed for that framework.

Sunday's story by Robert Kasarda reported that RDA members Carmen Fernandez and Harley Snyder own land within an area of Porter that is to benefit from a $1.8 million RDA grant for a lakeshore gateway project.

Neither Fernandez nor Snyder owns land in the site to be directly affected by the RDA spending, part of a $19.7 million project, but the development is designed to have a ripple effect. Their properties are within that project's footprint.

Fernandez is co-owner of a house at 631 N. River Dr.

Snyder bought acreage years ago. He agreed in October to sell it, except for an acre he still owns, for the new Discovery Charter School at 800 Canonie Drive and signed off on the deal April 16.

Both Fernandez and Snyder failed to make public their connections to that site of the Porter gateway project before the RDA's Nov. 17 vote. Fernandez was absent, but Snyder voted for the project.

The RDA's official minutes from that meeting even say, "H. Snyder commended the Town of Porter for their persistence and commitment."

That hardly speaks of the attitude of detachment that Snyder and Fernandez should have exhibited.

Snyder and Fernandez should have revealed their ownership of real estate in Porter before the RDA voted to spend money that involves that land. Then they should have abstained from voting.

RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna has said Snyder and Fernandez did nothing wrong because there's no requirement for members to disclose information like this unless they stand to receive "direct pecuniary benefit."

Keeping in mind that the RDA has already expressed its desire to maintain the highest ethics, the agency should now require members to disclose any indirect, as well as direct, pecuniary benefit from a project.

This has nothing to do with the value of the project. It stands on its own merits. It has everything to do with transparency in government.

Your opinion, please

Should RDA members Harley Snyder and Carmen Fernandez have disclosed their ownership of properties within the footprint of an RDA project?

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All double-dippers need another opinion

By Mark Kiesling
mark.kiesling@nwi.com, (219) 933-4170
| Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Now that Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has said the Hammond City Council cannot appoint one of its own to the city's Port Authority, legislators and judges need to take another look at how they deal with people who are effectively double-dipping on the public payroll.

Zoeller's opinion, although strictly advisory, was a good one, and I don't say that because Councilman Bob Markovich, D-at large, would have made a poor representative on the Hammond Port Authority.

In fact, Markovich served previously on the authority and has the expertise to deal with a lot of the issues that come before that board.

But Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr. was right when he said Markovich could not serve on both because state law prevents the holding of two lucrative offices by one officeholder. In fact, Zoeller's opinion went so far as to say that had Markovich accepted the Port Authority seat, he would have been required to resign his seat on the council.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to realize McDermott pressed this one hard because he and Markovich have been bitter political enemies. But when you're right, you're right -- regardless of your motives.

Markovich is paid to be on the council. He would have been paid to be on the Port Authority. And Zoeller said in essence that Markovich could not accept money from both public offices.

Left unspoken, though, is the same sort of double-dipping that goes on throughout government, particularly municipal governments. Some mayors, for example, get money to act as paid members of their sanitary boards. Gary's Rudy Clay comes to mind, but there also are others.

Other mayors in other municipalities hold jobs that tack on thousands to their mayoral salaries. Some act as liquor control commissioners, and some elected officials have tried to act outside their cities. Hammond City Clerk Bob Golec did just that in 2005 when he tried to serve in a paid position on the Little Calumet River Basin Commission and was told he could not because of the law.

Zoeller's opinion, which is not law, also calls into question the propriety of municipal employees serving as members of their councils.

At one time, there was a possibility that four of five of the Highland Town Council members would have been town employees. It's almost impossible to find a city or town that does not have a police officer, firefighter, street department guy or some other employee making the laws and setting the salaries for themselves and their co-workers.

I have never liked this. I think there is an inherent conflict of interest in being able to set salaries and make policies for yourself and your co-workers, but the Indiana Supreme Court ruled the practice legal in a 1984 Hammond case.

Being legal does not make it right any more than making something illegal makes it wrong.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at markk@nwitimes.com or (219) 933-4170. 

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Dial-a-ride buses picking up more riders

By Keith Benman
keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326
| Monday, June 01, 2009

Ridership on several dial-a-ride bus services in Lake and Porter counties is soaring following the demise of Northwest Indiana Community Action's bus service and the economy's downturn.

"There simply are not enough buses out there to meet demand," said Margot Ann Sabato, executive director of South Lake County Community Services. "It upsets everyone when you tell them service is available in their area, but they can't get on it."

South Lake County Community Services has expanded its fleet to seven buses and estimates it will provide about 23,000 rides this year, which will be a 77 percent increase over the 13,000 rides provided last year, Sabato said.

Porter County Aging and Community Services has seen ridership on its dial-a-ride services increase 21 percent this year and Opportunity Enterprises' ridership went up 13 percent.

Only North Township's free fare service has seen a decrease, and that is due to having one of its four buses out of service this year, according to township transportation director Jerry Siska.

Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority Director Tim Brown said it's no surprise the remaining dial-a-ride services are seeing surges in ridership.

"The best way to describe that is the 98,000 rides Northwest Indiana Community Action was providing before had to go somewhere, so it had to be picked up by someone or just ignored," Brown said.

Northwest Indiana Community Action was the largest provider of dial-a-ride services in the region before closing down in January when local funding dried up.

Even with the increases in ridership and expanded service, ridership numbers for this year from the four remaining providers show they will still be about 80,000 rides short of replacing those provided by Northwest Indiana Community Action.

The ridership numbers for dial-a-ride systems stand in contrast to those for fixed-route services such as city buses and commuter trains. Both nationally and locally, those numbers have fallen with the downturn in the economy.

On Monday, the RBA announced a $32,000 grant to aid dial-a-ride operator Opportunity Enterprises, of Valparaiso, to lease three new buses. That follows two $30,000 grants to South Lake County Community Services for buses and a $26,000 grant to Porter County Aging and Community Services.

The recession also appears to be a factor in the increased ridership, especially for providers that did not operate in the same territory as Northwest Indiana Community Action, according to Bruce Lindner, executive director at Porter County Aging and Community Services.

Lindner said he knows most people think consolidating the patchwork of dial-a-ride services could make for a more efficient system but how to go about it remains problematical.

So far, no single tax or revenue source has been identified that could replace the myriad local governments and agencies that fund dial-a-ride services, Sabato said.

In the case of South Lake County Community Services, the City of Crown Point, a number of townships, and the Lake County Council all kick in funds. Porter County Aging and Community Services receives $200,000 per year from Porter County, making up almost half its budget, Lindner said. Dial-a-bus

These four agencies provide dial-a-ride bus service for the elderly, people with disabilities and others. Service is provided in Lake, Porter and portions of LaPorte counties. Generally, people have to call 24 hours or more ahead for a ride, and fares range from free (North Township) to $10 per ride, depending on the agency providing the service. Each agency reports the following changes in ridership for this year as compared to last:

South Lake County Community Services: up 77 percent
North Township: down 26 percent*
Porter County Aging and Community Services: up 21 percent
Opportunity Enterprises: up 13 percent

*North Township was operating just three buses this year as compared to four last year.

Sources: South Lake County Community Services, North Township, Porter County Aging and Community Services,
Opportunity Enterprises.

======================================================

Public forum turns ugly
Focus is state plans involving people with disabilities

Deborah Sederberg
The News-Dispatch

Saturday, May 30, 2009

MICHIGAN CITY - People with disabilities deserve to have a voice.

Anyone who attended Friday's joint meeting of the Indiana Council on Independent Living and Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation Services heard that message clearly - and sometimes loudly.

Conversation ran to explosive issues such as misuse of funds, failure to advocate for northern Indiana people, restraining orders and assault.

Of the 10 people who attended, many had issues with COIL.

The meeting's purpose was to give people an opportunity to comment on the state's new vocational rehabilitation plan for fiscal year 2010, as well as the State Plan for Independent Living. But neither a skeleton of the independent living plan nor guidelines for constructing the plan exist yet, a situation that angered and confused many in attendance.

Independent living advocates charged COIL President Richard Simmer with lack of communication, as well as making false accusations about former council members. They also accused him of stacking the council with too many people who stand to make money from deals with Indiana's Family and Social Service Administration, the gigantic state entity through which several of Indiana's departments function, including the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program and Independent Living Services Program, function.

The council, for example, includes seven directors of advocacy and referral centers such as Everybody Counts in Merrillville, where Teresa Torres is director.

Torres and others present Friday say Simmer failed to advocate for northern Indiana centers and failed to fund the Lake County facility as generously as southern Indiana centers are funded.

Simmer, who uses a specialized wheelchair that's about as long as a hospital gurney, also uses a mechanical device similar to an old iron lung to assist him with breathing.

His voice is weak and throughout the meeting, others repeated his questions and answers to make them audible to most participants. Before the meeting even began, he said he would not be answering questions.

"We are here to take testimony only," he said.

Terry Oprinovich, regional manager for Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation Services, answered as many questions as he could, took down e-mail addresses and promised to research and answer other questions via e-mail.

Jodi James, director of disability services for Purdue University-North Central, has a particular quarrel with Simmer, whom she holds responsible for kicking her out of the council president's chair after she and the executive board postponed a meeting when it looked as if the meeting would not draw a quorum.

Asked whether he did that, Simmer told The News-Dispatch, "You'll have to ask Miss James," and refused to comment further.

Torres and James say Simmer, several times at meetings in Indianapolis, called the Capitol Police to haul them away - James was in her wheel chair - when they asked questions about finances.

"You got a restraining order against me and told the judge I threw something at you when in fact I threw (an assisted listening device) on the floor," Torres said.

Torres told Simmer, "We need to know what the (independent living) plan is about, what are the guidelines, before we can comment.

"What steps have been taken to let us know, to give us this information?"

Simmer did not reply.

"(Disabled citizens of) Lake and Porter County are underserved," James said.

Raymond Fletcher, Hammond, told Simmer lack of transportation makes a huge impact on independence issues for people with disabilities. "The transportation system in Lake County is about to collapse," he said.

A longtime advocate for people with disabilities, Leonard Sullivan, Chesterton, said he feels frustrated to see how little money makes its way to northern Indiana, "where the population centers are."

Similarly, George Janic, Hammond, said he is losing patience with the independent living council and with the state's habit of underserving northern Indiana.

"We've got 500,000 people in Lake County," he said. He scolded Simmer for failing to notify local papers in a timely manner about the Friday meeting, calling the meeting and the discussion of a plan without guidelines or a proposal "dysfunctional just like the (independent living) council is dysfunctional."

To Simmer, he said, "Get up off your butt and do something or get out of the way so others can do the job."

Janic, who uses a wheelchair, narrowly lost the last race for mayor in Hammond.

Manipulating his electric wheelchair toward the door of the library meeting room, Simmer was stopped for a moment by a chair and person traffic jam. Torres took that opportunity to scold him for getting the restraining order on her. Whether intentionally or not, Simmer bumped her abdomen with his wheelchair. Even after she asked him to stop, he bumped her again. Angry, she said, "Just because you use an iron lung, it doesn't give you the right to be rude.

"(Bumping her) is assault," Torres said. "It's assault."

Oprinovich told participants they have until Monday, June 15, to comment on the vocational rehabilitation plan or independent living plan. The best way to comment, he said, is by e-mail to Kathy.Sodeman@fssa.IN.gov.

Mail comments to The Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, MS 20, P.O. Box 7083, Indianapolis, IN 46207-7083. Another alternative is to comment by FAX to (317) 232-6478.

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RDA, trains, parks are a waste of money

Saturday, May 30, 2009

When are the people going to wake up? I read there is no way that the South Shore will be extended to Valparaiso or other towns south because a survey shows ridership would not warrant it, so there would be no federal money (more of our tax dollars) to pay for it.

Now I read about the local politicians wanting to stay in the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority so they can get more money for parks. Parks are nice when you can afford them, not now.

Here are what parks do now. They become an expense to the taxpayers. What they don't do is bring in jobs or feed anyone. They just take private property off the tax rolls, causing all the rest to pay more to keep the politicians in funds to build more parks and say look what we did for you.

Margaret Thatcher said it well: The problem with socialism is sooner or later they run out of other people's money.

- Charlie Van Cleef, Chesterton

======================================================

RDA legal battle continues
 

May 27, 2009

By JANE HUH Post-Tribune staff writer

The Porter County Council continues to make headway with its legal battle against the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

At Tuesday night's council meeting, members voted 4-3 to hire an Indianapolis law firm to represent the council's case for Porter County's withdrawal from the regional organization.

Councilman Dan Whitten recommended the council hire Bose McKinney and Evans LLP.

After recent discussions with associates, Whitten concluded the law firm, based on its history of representing municipalities, is the appropriate choice.

Last month, he had proposed a contract go to Hall Render Killian Heath and Lyman, an Indianapolis-based firm that assisted the county with the Porter hospital sale two years ago.

Tuesday's vote is contingent on contract approval from the county's three-member board of commissioners. The legal fee is estimated to be between $315 and $335 an hour. Payment would be drawn from the county's casino fund or a consultancy expense budget, Whitten added. Although the total legal expense is unknown, Whitten said the sum would be less than the $3.5 million annual membership the county has been paying to the RDA. He and other critics say the RDA has failed to deliver projects for Porter County taxpayers. The RDA was established in 2005 to support long-term regional transportation and economic development projects and to raise funds that can be matched by federal funds.

RDA officials forwarded the contentious issue to the Indiana attorney general for a legal opinion.

They say that because state statute created the authority and defined its membership, the state is the only entity that can decide on any changes to the membership.

Contact Jane Huh at 477-6019 or jhuh@post-trib.com

======================================================

Where are we going, how will be get there?

By Howard Cohen
Chancellor, Purdue University Calumet
| Sunday, May 24, 2009

Northwest Indiana might be the "Crossroads of America" for the tens of thousands of personal and commercial vehicles that pass through our state every day, but the public transportation infrastructure for our own citizens leaves much to be desired.

For a region of our size and proximity to a major metropolitan area, public transportation is extremely fragmented and dysfunctional. We have a single strand commuter rail line rather than a spider web of options; we have three city bus systems that are neither well funded nor well coordinated and a few localized "demand response" systems, none of which begin to provide a comprehensive level of service; we have an airport without commercial passenger service. If transportation infrastructure is a prerequisite for economic growth; access to jobs, recreation, culture and shopping; and an improved quality of life, we still have much to accomplish.

Recognizing the importance of physically uniting our region through a transportation infrastructure, local government officials, state legislators and the governor agreed to form the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, provide local funding, and task it to leverage those funds to finance the components of a modern public transportation system.

The RDA is using the resources provided by local government and the state to do just that. To date, the RDA has provided $17.5 million for additional cars on the South Shore Line, $20 million to prepare for runway expansion at the Gary-Chicago airport, $6.9 million to begin the transformation of a unified regional bus system, and $1.8 million for commuter buses from Valparaiso to Chicago.

Each of these projects represents a step in the direction of an integrated regional transportation system; none of them is yet transformational. Why does it take so much time and money to bring regional transportation to Northwest Indiana?

Commuter rail is expensive. The federal government pays only 50 percent of the cost (compared to 80 percent for highways) and severely limits the number of new projects it will support.

Buses cannot run on fares alone. They require additional funds from local, federal and state governments to remain in operation. The RDA can reduce that requirement through an initial investment in buses, but ongoing operating funds remain a local or state responsibility.

The airport is not located in a rural cornfield. Its expansion requires moving railroad tracks, power lines and (possibly) neighboring businesses as well as replacing wetlands that lie in its current path.

These are large problems, but not impossibilities. They take time, effort and money to address. Why is it worth it?

Transportation infrastructure is a necessary requirement for economic growth.

It is a key component of attracting new businesses that create new jobs. It is also a key component of attracting new residents who would like to work in the Chicago environs, but prefer to live in Indiana and commute.

A local airport is a key component of a strategy to attract logistics businesses to this area. These businesses tend to create good paying jobs, and they are the kind of business that must be "in residence" rather than outsourced.

Is growth a good thing for Northwest Indiana? Even if we set aside the convenience and environmental value of having an efficient public transportation system, growth is the best strategy available for tax reduction. The arithmetic is simple: aging communities cost a lot of money to maintain. If the tax base is shrinking, we each pay a larger share of that cost. If the tax base is growing, we each pay a smaller share. A transportation infrastructure might be expensive, but a declining population will cost even more for those who remain.

When our transportation system is complete, it is an accomplishment that will make us proud. The quality of life in Northwest Indiana depends on this success.

Howard Cohen is Chancellor of Purdue University Calumet and Hammond's representative on the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

======================================================

EDITORIAL: Lawmakers must solve bus puzzle

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Yet another study for the Regional Bus Authority has failed to provide the information needed to reach the right decision on how best to provide regional bus service for the region.

A $170,000 report, in draft form, ordered by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority has some of the same flaws as a previous $625,000 study.

The new report doesn't give specifics on new consolidated routes, it doesn't address demand-response service, and it fails to include suburban communities, according to RBA member Corey Surrett.

The $170,000 report, like the $625,000 report before it, is a waste of money. The latest report is poorly timed, not offering valuable advice in time for legislators to provide a comprehensive solution during their regular annual session.

Bus service in Northwest Indiana is in jeopardy and, in fact, already shrinking.

Hammond recently gave a six-month reprieve to its bus service, but Northwest Indiana Community Action didn't have casino money available to save the demand-response service it operated in Lake County, so that service was shut down.

The existing bus service is cobbled together, not organized on the regional scale necessary to provide a fully functioning system.

Although the Indiana General Assembly failed earlier this year to provide the comprehensive solution necessary for regional bus service, it should step in during the special session on the budget and force a merger of the bus lines in East Chicago, Gary and Hammond. Create a truly regional system, not just a Rube Goldberg combination of the existing pieces.

The discussion on providing a functional bus service in Northwest Indiana has dragged on for years. It's time to stop wasting money on studies that don't provide the necessary information and gain traction on the implementation of the bus consolidation.

It's time for the Legislature to provide the solution that needs to be implemented here. Your opinion, please
What should the Indiana General Assembly do about creating a regional bus system?
 

======================================================

GPTC still planning service cuts
 

May 23, 2009

By Erik Potter, Post-Tribune staff writer

Service cuts to the Gary Public Transit Corp. will still happen this year, despite the small respite granted to the agency this week by the Distressed Unit Appeals Board.

GPTC is facing a $1.4 million decrease in its property tax revenue over the next three years. The appeals board cushioned that blow by $174,000 this year, but that will still require gaping budget cuts over the next few years.

"It's not a pretty picture," said GPTC Administrator Daryl Lampkins. "But we're going to do the best we can for as long as we can."

Several service cutbacks for the bus system were supposed to have started this week, but officials put them off in response to rider feedback and to see how the distressed unit board would rule.

In light of the board's decision, Lampkins and his staff will draw up new reduction plans in service and staff to roll out over the next 30 to 60 days.

Lampkins said he's not certain exactly how the distressed unit board's decision will affect the bus system

"That could conceivably mean after the fourth year, cutting that amount, that GPTC won't be in existence," Lampkins said. "At what point do you say it's not a good rationale to run the system? Ten buses? Two buses? One bus?"

Currently, GPTC operates 18 buses during peak hours, including regional routes, as well as three paratransit buses with a budget of $7.9 million.

 

Contact Erik-Potter at 648-3120, or epotter@post-trib.com.

======================================================

Cutbacks in Gary bus service delayed

 

May 19, 2009

Post-Tribune staff report

MERRILLVILLE -- Gary Public Transit Corp. has delayed service cutbacks that were supposed to roll out Monday.

GPTC was expected to seek the approval on Monday of the Regional Bus Authority to change the Broadway Express route, which the RBA helps fund, by adding more local stops. But GPTC Administrator Daryl Lampkins said the agency had delayed the changes -- and its request for RBA approval -- in order to tweak the schedule in response to rider feedback.

Cuts announced at GPTC's May 7 meeting included the elimination of Route 15 (King Drive/Village), suspension of Route 1 (Tiberon Trails via 35th Avenue) during midday, and reduction in the frequency of Route 16 buses, as well as the extension service on Route 19 (West 6th Avenue/Village) into the evening.

and allowing local stops on the Broadway Express (Route 17) route during midday.

Ridership on the three regional routes -- Broadway Express, Tri-City and the U.S. 30 circulator -- has disappointed both GPTC and the RBA, which added buses to the routes and began funding them on Sept. 21.

Since October, ridership on Route 17 has fallen by 17 percent; Route 20 (U.S. 30 circulator) has dropped 21 percent and Route 12 (Tri-City) has eked out a 3 percent gain. Overall, the three regional routes have seen a 14 percent decline. However, overall GPTC ridership has fallen 19 percent over the same period.

"We're paying $135,000 a month to have ridership go down? That's not what we intended," said Tom O'Donnell, RBA board member and Lake County Council member.

Lampkins said the decrease is due in part to poor marketing of the improvements to the routes on the part of the RBA and GPTC, as well as a nationwide decline in ridership due to the recession.

"(Most) transit agencies are seeing a decline in ridership," Lampkins said. "You couple that with no marketing

======================================================

New study also lacking, RBA members say

By Keith Benman
keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326
| Tuesday, May 19, 2009

MERRILLVILLE | Members of the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority say a $170,000 draft report on consolidating bus systems in Lake County has some of the same shortcomings critics found in a previous report costing $625,000.

The new draft report lacks specifics on new consolidated routes, does not address demand-response service, and cuts out suburban communities when it come to representation, according to Corey Surrett, an RBA member representing Griffith, Highland and Munster.

"I think the draft needs a lot more work before we could even put it in front of you," Surrett told the RBA board at its regular meeting Monday at Methodist Hospitals Southlake Campus in Merrillville.

State Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, called for a new report on consolidating regional bus services along with an audit of RBA books last year. In response, the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority told the RBA to hire consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff to do a new study.

A report done three years ago for the RBA by consultant TranSystems was criticized by Dobis and others as lacking in several important respects.

The new draft study by Parsons Brinckerhoff does not provide for any means of funding the consolidated system other than what is in place now, said outgoing RBA President Dennis Rittenmeyer.

Surrett said the RBA will ask that more detail be added to the report in a meeting with Parsons Brinckerhoff representatives next week.

Meanwhile, one of the RBA's largest projects is delivering mixed results, according to ridership numbers released at Monday's meeting. Three regional Gary Public Transportation Corp. routes subsidized by the RBA at a cost of approximately $135,000 per month have seen an overall 6.2 percent drop in ridership in the past eight months.

One route, the Tri-City going from Gary's Metro Center to the Dan Rabin Transit Plaza in Hammond, has seen a 55 percent increase in ridership, with 6,050 riders on that route in March, according to GPTC figures.

But ridership on the U.S. 30 Connector in Merrillville and Hobart has dropped 21 percent and ridership on the Broadway Express has dropped about 15.8 percent.

That compares to a 16.4 percent drop in ridership overall for GPTC during the same eight-month period.

GPTC General Manager Daryl Lampkins said most U.S. mass transit systems are seeing ridership declines because of the recession. Buses on GPTC local routes in the city also have been plagued by breakdowns and the cash-strapped agency is planning deep cuts in service.

"Jobs have declined," Lampkins noted. "There are no jobs to go to."

======================================================

Bus service rolling, at least for now

By Mark Kiesling
mark.kiesling@nwi.com, (219) 933-4170
| Friday, May 15, 2009

The Hammond City Council is blowing the equivalent of the kids' college money at the casino.

Actually, it is the casino money they are blowing -- $400,000 to shore up the sagging Hammond Transit System with an infusion of cash from the gaming money allotted to each of the six district council members, the mayor and a shared pot that belongs to the mayor and the council.

I've said it before and at the risk of becoming uber-redundant, the money the lakefront casinos provide to the cities and towns in Lake County was once used for permanent infrastructure repairs to sewers, streets and sidewalks.

Now, it has become a kind of piggy bank that can be smashed at will whenever councils are running short of money for anything, including the meat and potatoes of their budgets like personnel or items that have experienced unforeseen critical shortfalls.

Like the Hammond Transit System.

City buses were scheduled to be parked on June 30 after Mayor Tom McDermott Jr. decided the city could no longer fund the bus system. He did a 180-degree turnaround, however, and managed to scrape up some loose federal change that had apparently dropped out of some pork barrel somewhere.

He admitted it was "a Band-Aid approach" and when the Band-Aid started to peel off the City Council voted 7-1 Monday to put $400,000 of the casino money into the system to keep it afloat.

The lone voice against the move was Councilman Dan Repay, D-5th, who said, "We have an RBA (Regional Bus Authority) that is sitting there making money" but is only interested in running bus service from Valparaiso to Chicago while ignoring floundering systems like those in Hammond and Gary.

The reality is that municipalities have become more and more dependent on casino money for their day-to-day operations and what the casino giveth, the casino can take away. Not by contract, mind you -- they are bound to provide their host city and neighboring towns with a portion of their revenue.

But there is a move afoot in the Legislature that entails the possibility of Gary losing one of its two gaming licenses while the remaining lake-based casino is allowed to move inland. Although the proposal was not heard during this session, count on it to be resurrected in the next.

Repay was in favor of saving the money for a rainy day. "The reality of the situation is that we are going to be facing the same (shortfall) situation at budget time when we are looking at $400,000 in cuts," he said.

The reality is the inability of the state to set timely property tax rates and the local governments to issue tax bills on time has cost the cities and towns incredible amounts of cash in nonpayments and on interest on loans taken out to cover the shortfall.

So in desperation, they turn to their last resort -- the jackpot of casino money.

What would they do if it was not there? Who would keep the buses running then?

It's time to think about it.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at markk@nwitimes.com or (219) 933-4170.

======================================================

VOLUNTEER COUNSELORS SOUGHT:

Post-Tribune

May 15, 2009

MERRILLVILLE -- Everybody Counts is seeking peer counselors for those who have acquired or been diagnosed with a disability recently. Everybody Counts is a local not-for-profit advocacy agency providing a wide range of services to persons with disabilities. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Everybody Counts is part of a nationwide network of not-for-profit agencies.

For more information, call 769-5055 or visit www.everybodycounts.org.

======================================================

Bus service to Chicago guarantees ride home
 

May 15, 2009

By Teresa Auch Schultz, Post-Tribune staff writer

VALPARAISO -- The ChicaGo Dash will see several changes starting Monday, including a guaranteed ride home, an official said.

Tyler Kent, transit director, told the Valparaiso Redevelopment Commission at its Thursday night

Also, the morning routes are changing times and will leave from Valparaiso at 6 a.m. and 6:40 a.m., instead of 5:45 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. Starting June 6, the service will also restart the Saturday service. A bus will leave each Saturday until Sept. 5 at 10 a.m. and take people to Millenium Park, Navy Pier and Water Tower Place. The Saturday service will also offer the guaranteed ride home program.

The commission also approved funding for the Troyer Group to start design work on the proposed roundabout at Vale Park and Silhavy roads. The contract is not to exceed $204,000.

Actual work on the roundabout is being delayed a year now, until 2011. Engineer Tim Burkman said that it makes sense to do the work the same year that the state plans on putting in an interchange at Vale Park Road and Indiana 49.

Because the work won't start next year as originally expected, Stu Summers, executive director of the Redevelopment Commission, said, it doesn't make sense to continue to have a police officer at the intersection during busy travel hours, when traffic can get backed up.

Instead, he suggested looking into adding temporary turn lanes and possibly a stop light to help ease congestion.

======================================================

Hammond funds bus service through end of year

By Jeff Burton
jeff.burton@nwi.com, (219) 933-3246
| Wednesday, May 13, 2009

HAMMOND | City buses will be running until at least the end of 2009 after City Council members granted the Hammond Transit System a reprieve Monday night.

In a 7-1 vote, City Council members agreed to fund the bus system with $400,000 in gaming revenue, taking $40,000 from each of the six district council members, $120,000 from Mayor Thomas McDermott, Jr. and $40,000 from revenues the council and mayor share.

McDermott said funding the bus system now is the right thing to do, but in order to sustain the system, he said, a more regional approach needs to be taken. "We would be doing a disservice to our residents if we let the buses stop," McDermott said.

Fifth District Councilman Dan Repay, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said the resolution amounted to a blank check for an inefficient system and those dollars could be used for better programs down the road.

"The reality is that we're going to be facing the same situation at budget time, when we're looking at $400,000 in cuts," he said.

While he voted in favor of the allocation, Third District Councilman Anthony Higgs agreed that the system has its problems. Higgs said if the transit system ever needs more gaming dollars to fund a budget shortfall, he's going to have to see a plan that either cuts costs or has alternative funding mechanisms.

"That plan may consist of eliminating a few routes or enlarging a few routes," he said.

Higgs said while he has issues with the proposal, he knows many of his constituents use the system to access places like medical facilities, grocery stores and the Woodmar shopping area. "Sometimes you have to do what's best," he said.

======================================================

Commissioner fears transit plan not dead

By Bob Kasarda
bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345
| Wednesday, May 06, 2009

VALPARAISO | Porter County Commissioner Bob Harper said there is talk about state lawmakers using the upcoming special session to resurrect the idea of creating a regional transportation district with the power to increase the county's income tax.

Harper called on taxpayers opposed to the proposal to contact their lawmakers and request they follow through with the original plan of allowing residents of each county to vote on whether they want to be part of the proposed district.

Some lawmakers have been attempting to strip the referendum clause out of the proposal, he said.

There also have been efforts to strip out a clause to give a county commissioner and council member a seat on the district board and thus a vote on any proposal to raise the income tax, Harper said.

Harper commented on the legislation at the end of Tuesday evening's commissioners meeting.

The proposed regional transportation district was cited as one of the reasons the County Council opted last month to leave the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, which the county is helping fund with income tax revenues.

Some County Council members did not like the idea of increasing the local income tax by 0.25 percent and felt state lawmakers were usurping local power by creating local entities with taxing powers.

Harper said the additional funding is being sought for bus service in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago; to supplement the cost of the V-Line bus service in Valparaiso as federal funding runs out; and to extend the South Shore railroad to Valparaiso and Lowell.

Harper said he does not believe the proposed 0.25 percent income tax increase would be enough to fund even the bus services. If the county's income tax is allowed to be increased by this amount to 0.75 percent, he questioned how much more it will grow in the future.

"So it's not over with yet," Harper said.

======================================================

EDITORIAL: Provide funds for mass transit

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Indiana General Assembly dropped the ball on approving a biennial budget, but it also failed to provide a solution to the public transportation dilemma facing the region and the state.

Public transportation has been in a meltdown in Northwest Indiana. Already, Northwest Indiana Community Action has gotten out of the bus business, stranding passengers who used to rely on the agency to provide on-demand bus service in Lake County.

Those buses have been sold already.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. has had a change of heart about shutting down the Hammond Transit System, funding it for the first six months of this year on casino money.

Hammond Transit Director Keith Matasovsky has asked the mayor and City Council for another infusion of casino revenue.

Indiana Transportation Association President Kent McDaniel has a gloomy prediction for state mass transportation funding during the upcoming special session of the Indiana General Assembly.

"The good news is that more legislators are talking about public transit than I have ever seen," McDaniel said. "The bad news is that in the end, they didn't do anything about it."

No one knows what will come out of the special session of the Indiana General Assembly, but regional mass transit must not continue to collapse.

If it takes an infusion of casino money in the local communities to keep the buses running, so be it. But don't let the service end.

Transportation infrastructure, including public transportation, is an essential government service. It must not be ignored by the General Assembly. Your opinion, please
How should public transportation be funded?

======================================================

Inside Indiana Business column: Communities urging Porter County to stick with RDA

By Gerry Dick | Sunday, May 03, 2009

Leaders in five Porter County communities are calling on the county council to reconsider its decision to withdraw from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas said the communities believe Northwest Indiana must continue to act in a regional manner on economic development issues or cities and towns will suffer.

CIB makes more cost saving moves

The board that oversees some of the state's largest sports stadiums is taking more steps to address an anticipated $47 million budget shortfall. The Capital Improvement Board in Indianapolis plans to renegotiate all contracts for operating facilities including Lucas Oil Stadium, Conseco Fieldhouse and the Indiana Convention Center. It is suspending all payments not directly related to keeping facilities open and wants to move ahead with an appraisal of all assets that could be sold, such as naming rights for the convention center.

Connersville ready to showoff to Carbon Motors

Connersville Economic Development Group Executive Director Bryan Coats said the community is ready to court officials from Atlanta-based Carbon Motors Corp. Company representatives will be in the area over the next week. They will get a tour of the city and the former Visteon plant, a possible site for the company to manufacture police cars. Officials will also meet with state legislators in Indianapolis and tour a proposed training center for prospective employees.

Profit for Indy-based Simon jumps in 1Q

Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group Inc. is reporting funds from operations (FFO) for the first quarter reached $476.8 million, or $1.61 per share, up 13.5 percent from the same period in 2008. Analysts had expected FFO to be $1.47 per share. The company said net income jumped 21.5 percent to $106.8 million, from $87.9 million a year earlier.


Goodnight at ease with Chrysler's bankruptcy filing

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said he is optimistic Chrysler LLC's decision to file bankruptcy will help secure a strong future for the

company. He had been hopeful bankruptcy could be avoided, but he was pleased to learn the process will be structured and supported by the federal government. Goodnight also believes Chrysler's pending merger with Italy's Fiat will be beneficial. The mayor recently sent a letter to Fiat officials inviting them to the city to learn about its automotive industry assets.

IU Kelley expert: GM is planning for 'worst case'

A visiting professor at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business-Indianapolis said it still remains to be seen if the aggressive

cuts announced by General Motors Corp. will be enough to help the company survive. Kyle Anderson said there will be "some pain" with the sharp reduction in dealers. GM is reducing its dealer numbers by 42 percent. The company is also cutting 21,000 positions and phasing out the Pontiac brand.

Indiana Business College changes name to Harrison College

Indiana Business College has announced it is changing its name to Harrison College. The 107-year-old institution says the change reflects the fact that it no longer offers just business degree programs. The school now offers more than 30 degrees in five schools of study and operates The Chef's Academy in Indianapolis.

Find more Indiana business news at www.InsideINdianaBusiness.com. Send story ideas to newsletter@growindiana.net

======================================================

Official: State unlikely to rescue Hammond buses

By Susan Brown
susan.brown@nwi.com, (219) 836-3780
| Saturday, May 02, 2009

HAMMOND | Transit Director Keith Matasovsky has notified city officials of a new urgency for gaming dollars to continue bus service in the city past June 30.

In an e-mail Friday, Matasovsky informed Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and the City Council that the president of the Indiana Transportation Association believes efforts to persuade the state to fund transit services have failed.

A report Matasovsky received from ITA President Kent McDaniel indicated McDaniel believed the transit bill is unlikely to be considered during the General Assembly's upcoming special session.

"The General Assembly failed to pass a budget (Wednesday) and will have to be recalled for a special session to finish their job, but as far as public transit is concerned, it is all over," McDaniel told ITA members. "The good news is that more legislators are talking about public transit than I have ever seen. The bad news is that in the end, they didn't do anything about it."

Matasovsky told city officials he now believes bus service in Hammond after June fully depends on the City Council passing an ordinance to fund bus service with casino revenues.

"This must be soon if we are to continue operations," his e-mail states.

Fifth District Councilman Dan Repay, who publicly has opposed any more local funding for buses, also has said he believes the votes are there to approve the gaming dollars.

On the last day of the regular session, state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, called it crucial to act this year before Hammond, East Chicago and Gary bus systems shut down.

Soliday could not be reached Friday for immediate comment regarding the renewed urgency in Hammond.

Times staff writer Patrick Guinane contributed to this report.

======================================================

Quickly's Neighbors/Porter County

May 1, 2009

The people of Porter do not want the Regional Development Authority. A select few, backed by the religious right, are intent on taking over the town and imposing their views on lifelong citizens. If the Porter County Council voted to reject the RDA, Porter should abide by its decision and not the behind-the-scenes push by people with their own agendas. Porter County should not add any unnecessary taxes, especially to benefit Lake County.

To the people complaining about the Valparaiso Mini-Marathon arrows painted on the road: Maybe we should give you a paper map to follow while you drive. Instead, you have your eyes glued to your GPS, puffing on a cigarette and throwing your trash out of your cars at us. We have to constantly dodge you when you cross the fog line painted on the road. I say runners and cyclists are some of the most eco-friendly people on the roads.

If I don't mention the roundabout in Valparaiso, can I still get an opinion printed?

To the person complaining about a proposed curfew in Chesterton: Good kids won't be affected by a tighter curfew because good kids won't be out without a legitimate reason. Good parents don't routinely allow their under-18 children to tramp around town at all hours, unless the kids are involved in activities that are legitimate, and, therefore, exempt from curfew violations. The bottom line is, teens are not adults and they belong at home well before midnight, every night. Perhaps the new proposal isn't tough enough.

So Tom Taylor, director of personnel for the Portage Township Schools, doesn't see a problem with a $78 meal. I am a taxpayer; I can't afford one. I am sure most Portage teachers can't afford one. If food is that expensive in San Diego, do what I would have to do -- eat a hamburger! I am sure if this conference were in Toledo or Omaha, attendance would be way down. Was it a conference or a vacation?

We attended the Nativity of Our Savior gala Saturday in Portage. What a wonderful affair. Decorations were beautiful, food delicious, band (Guns and Hoses) was outstanding. Michelle, you did a fantastic job. Can't wait until next year.

======================================================

Gary Transit may be missing money source

April 27, 2009

Like other taxing units in Gary, the Gary Public Transportation Corp. is reeling from the impact of a budget shortfall.

The transit district is responding with a cost-cutting proposal that would reduce bus routes and lay off drivers to try to shore up the $1.4 million deficit caused by state-imposed tax caps.

The seven-member transit board, appointed by the mayor and City Council, will hear public opinion on proposed route cuts in a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. May 7 at the Adam Benjamin Metro Center, the home of the South Shore Railroad station.

The transit district has about 100 employees and operates 13 routes, including three regional routes.

The transit district got some good news a couple weeks ago when it received $687,000 in long-anticipated state funding, but GPTC general manager Daryl Lampkins warns that money could only extend service through mid-June.

In this perilous time for those who depend on public transportation, tough decisions need to be made and hard questions need to be asked. While the GPTC offers three regional routes, its own cutbacks make it difficult for riders to make connections. They vented their frustrations at a recent board meeting.

While the GPTC is receiving about $3.6 million in stimulus funding, most of that money won't go for operating costs. The GPTC has choices -- raise rates, cut routes and cut personnel.

Perhaps the GPTC is missing a revenue opportunity. Its biggest ridership is along King Drive as students commute to Ivy Tech and Indiana University. Maybe it's time for Gary to explore the possibility of those colleges chipping in just as Valparaiso University does so its students can ride the V-Line.

======================================================

City wants contract for bus service extended

By Susan Brown
susan.brown@nwi.com (219) 836-3780
| Sunday, April 19, 2009

HAMMOND | While offering no commitments, First Transit District Manager Shannon O'Neill said Friday the company is working with Hammond Transit officials regarding the leasing of the city's buses until the end of the year.

The city's current contract with First Transit ends June 30, the same day the city had anticipated ending transit service until a change of heart by Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. The City Council will host a public hearing April 27 on appropriating another $400,000 in gaming dollars to fund the service until December.

That's an option that won't get the vote of 5th District Councilman Dan Repay, who initially proposed cutting the bus service from this year's city budget. Repay last week came out strongly against the second round of gaming dollars to rescue the bus service, again tossing the ball to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority.

Repay said the city's current transit system simply doesn't work and won't be fixed by simply throwing more money at it.

"There is a need for a segment of the population, absolutely," he said. "The ultimate goal is it needs to be regionalized, or we won't be able to hang onto it."

Adding to the dilemma is an apparent reluctance by First Transit to offer a firm commitment to extend its contract with the city, an issue Transit Director Keith Matasovsky brought to the council's attention last week. Matasovsky said he has been in communication with the company, but there is no plan in place.

First District General Manager Marvin Smith later said there is an interest on the company's part, but referred more questions to O'Neill, who said there may be more information released in a matter of days.

Officials with Teamsters Local Union 142, which represents the bus drivers, said they are watching developments. "We're in the dark as much as anybody," Teamsters business agent Harvey Jackson said. Should the city and First Transit reach an agreement, the local would work to negotiate an extension, he said.

Meanwhile, if legislation pending downstate succeeds as is, referenda to decide the question of regionalization won't happen until May 2010, months after Hammond's service currently is set to shut down. Area legislators, however, are aiming to remove the referenda from the legislation, opening the door for the state to pick up the service in January.

======================================================

Region has long history of divided ideas

By Janet Moran
Times Columnist
| Monday, April 20, 2009

The socio-economic fabric of Northwest Indiana is frayed, perhaps irretrievably torn at the seams for the time being.

The us vs. them stance has been firmly planted in these environs for the past several decades. It recently took root a little deeper with the Porter County Council's decision to pull its membership from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

While state and some local elected officials and community leaders decry our inability to think strategically and act regionally in the name of a collective benefit to the four interfacing counties of Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph, our provincial attitudes eventually surface and become pretty near intractable as infighting and turf protection break out.

The battle lines are drawn. There's arguments, distrust and suspicion between north and south Lake County, Porter and Lake counties, Indiana and Illinois and Indianapolis and Northwest Indiana.

Before the Calumet Region's population centers began to dramatically shift in the 1970s into what is now termed urban sprawl, life here was somewhat homogeneous but never homogenized. County lines separated different life styles, each centered in their own culture. Differences were acknowledged but there was little interaction.

Historically speaking our primary differentials were laid in the early settlement of the area. Lake County became an industrial center with a large minority population all the more ethnically diverse with European and Asian immigrants arriving to work in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond. These cities, hugging Lake Michigan, were the center of activity in Lake County during the 20th Century's first six decades. The suburban communities positioned along Ridge Road were small, quiet towns bordering the acres of farm land stretching southward.

Porter County's early history is agrarian in nature with a large influx of Swedish and German Lutherans settling on farms. Valparaiso, the county seat and home to the one of the first coed colleges in the country, was the county's largest commercial center. Porter County's rural character attracted few minorities. Historian Powell Moore cites the 1930 U.S. census as listing 17 black residents in Porter County.

Chicagoans have long thought of Northwest Indiana as being on the other side of the moon. Early industrialists did, too. At the turn of century they located slaughter houses, steel mills, and oil refineries in Lake County where it was considered far enough away that the subsequent odors and pollution would not be noticed by the general population in Chicago proper.

As the downturn of the steel industry and closing of oil refineries took hold in Lake County in the '70s and '80s, the population relocated southward with a penchant for new subdivisions and wanting nothing to do with the northern cities that were beginning to take on the Rust Belt label. Some in Illinois began to discover Northwest Indiana, moving into south Lake County, Porter County between Valparaiso and Portage, and the beach communities in LaPorte County.

A dynamic, innovative population lives in Northwest Indiana. In time perhaps a new generation of young leaders can hopefully cast away the discord. In the meantime, demographically and geographically speaking, our economic development engine is idling.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. Contact Janet Moran at janetcopywrite@sbcglobal.net

======================================================

RDA seeks legal opinion on exit

By Keith Benman
keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326
| Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority has asked Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller for an opinion on the legality of Porter County's exit from the RDA.

A letter from RDA Chairman Leigh Morris requesting the opinion arrived at the attorney general's office Tuesday evening and will be reviewed, according to attorney general's spokeswoman Molly Butters.

The Porter County Council last week voted 4-3 to withdraw from the RDA and end Porter County's funding of the organization.

RDA members at a meeting the next day expressed their opinion the move was illegal and said they will consider options ranging from freezing funding for RDA projects in Porter County to challenging the action in court.

"We want to be prudent about the course of action we take and look at all possible impacts," said new RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna.

Porter County Councilman Dan Whitten, one of those voting in favor of Porter County's exit from the RDA, on Wednesday said the council at its next meeting will discuss retaining a lawyer to fight any legal challenges.

"We want to know what we can do legally and what we can't do," Whitten said. "Frankly, we want a good legal opinion, too."

Gov. Mitch Daniels has said he will not block Porter County's exit from the RDA. The governor said he will leave it up to Zoeller and potentially the courts to determine if Porter County's vote to withdraw is legally enforceable.

The RDA is a state agency and the attorney general has the obligation of representing state agencies in court, Butters said.

Morris' letter states the Porter County Council instructed the county auditor to withhold payment of the county's $3.5 million annual RDA membership contribution. The letter points out the County Council did not rescind the income tax that raises the money.

After the council's 4-3 vote to withdraw from the RDA, Whitten said the fate of the income tax will be taken up during the council's next meeting after options are researched. The income tax also delivers $8.3 million in property tax relief.

When contacted Wednesday, Morris said he presumes the attorney general's office will handle the RDA's legal case, although the RDA board has yet to discuss the matter.

Valparaiso attorney David Hollenbeck and Gordon White, of the attorney general's office, jointly represent the RDA.

======================================================

New regional transit authority deal moves
 

April 16, 2009

By John Byrne

Post-Tribune staff writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- The northern Indiana regional transportation district took an important step toward becoming law Wednesday, but the multi-county authority still has a long way to go before it reaches the governor's desk.

The Senate adopted the package by a 43-7 vote Wednesday afternoon, with all Northwest Indiana's senators voting in favor of it.

The proposal includes a county-by-county referendum, to be held in May 2010 in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.

If a majority of voters in at least two of the four counties support the idea of membership, the transportation district would be created only in those counties that voted for it.

The board, composed of county council members and commissioners from each participating county, would have the power to levy an income tax up to 0.25 percent to pay for big ticket transit projects like regional bus service and the South Shore rail extension.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, testified the authority is a rare chance to support a true economic development package.

"The region, because of its proximity to Chicago, is an area we think can be developed more," Rogers said.

If all four counties join and adopt the full 0.25 percent income tax, the board would have about $52 million per year for transit projects, according to state estimates.

Lake County residents would pay $22 million annually, Porter $12 million, LaPorte $5 million and St. Joseph $15 million.

But local legislators have hinted the package could undergo significant changes before the end of the session.

======================================================

TradeWinds storm still blowing

April 8, 2009

By Jane Huh

Post-Tribune staff writer

Lake County Surveyor George Van Til denounced Speros Batistatos for his "political retribution" against a Porter County councilman.

"I'm very unhappy that TradeWinds has been dragged into a political dispute by Speros Batistatos," Van Til said. "He's politicized his membership on the board."

Batistatos, president and chief executive officer of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, was one of three TradeWinds board members who signed a request calling for an investigation of Porter County Councilman Dan Whitten.

They asked the agency to investigate how Whitten could perform his job as its director of human resources while also working as a bankruptcy attorney.

Whitten voted as a member of the County Council last week to pull the county out of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and mentioned the large legal workload he handles for financially strapped clients.

TradeWinds is a not-for-profit organization that offers services for disabled children and adults in Lake County.

An executive session of TradeWinds' board took place Monday to discuss the matter. Calls to agency officials were not returned.

Batistatos, insisting the request was not politically motivated, said he had to carry out his "fiduciary responsibility."

"The letter speaks for itself," he said Monday.

Van Til said the matter could've been handled internally.

Contact Jane Huh at 477-6019 or jhuh@post-trib.com

 

======================================================

Porter County would regret leaving RDA


April 8, 2009

Porter County officials who want to get out of the Regional Development Authority aren't just wrong in their reasoning.

They also could be quite reckless.

The County Council will vote today on whether the county stays in the RDA. The catalyst seems to be the proposed four-county transit authority, which would have taxing authority and oversee mass transit from South Bend to the Illinois border.

Despite wise efforts across the country to regionalize, which produces more efficient government and better services, some Porter County leaders wish to become isolationist.

Where it becomes reckless is in the failure of some of those elected officials to understand that Porter County has received more money back from the RDA than it has paid in.

Porter County has paid in about $12.25 million since the inception of the RDA and has received $11.7 million in Porter County-only projects. That includes Portage's new lakefront park, Valparaiso's buses and a new Portage marina.

If you add in Porter County's prorated portion of the $17 million for new South Shore rail cars, county taxpayers have received more than they've paid.

And if the county pulls out of the RDA, other members could potentially sue to recoup that overage.

Where would the County Council find that money?

Not from the state, that's for sure. In fact, it's likely the legislature would send less state money to Porter County, as legislators look poorly upon those who can't work and play well with others.

Indignant isolationism is fun for politics.

But it's bad for Porter County, bad for its citizens and bad for its future.

======================================================

Senate committee on taxing binge

April 8, 2009

By John Byrne

Post-Tribune staff writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- A plan to fund northern Indiana train and bus service got much more expensive for local taxpayers Tuesday as a Senate panel adopted the package.

The Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee mandated that any county activating a proposed 0.25 percent income tax to fund mass transit must first pass three existing optional income taxes, two earmarked for property tax relief and one to subsidize public safety budgets.

The four income taxes are now all tied to a proposed regional transportation district covering Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.

Lake County is the only county in the state without any local income tax, while Porter County has only a 0.5 percent income tax for economic development.

All four additional income taxes could reach 2.5 percent in each county.

But given the prevailing sentiments among local officials and residents, it seems unlikely either county would take that step.

Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, said he introduced the amendment to House Bill 1607 in the hope he can convince the northwest corner of the state to fall in step with other counties in reducing property taxes.

"(Income taxes are) the wave of the future in terms of Indiana tax policy," Hershman said. "Voters want property tax relief."

Homeowners in Northwest Indiana could see their property tax bills fall 50 percent if the income taxes were passed, Hershman said.

Meanwhile, voters in the region might get the chance to vote on participating in the transportation district.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, proposed a single four-county ballot referendum on the idea.

The transit board would only be impaneled if a majority of those voting throughout the region said they wanted it, according to Kenley.

The Regional Transportation District board would have nine members -- a county councilman and commissioner from each county, plus a chairman appointed by the governor.

The board could institute an income tax up to 0.25 percent in each county, to pay for capital projects like the South Shore rail extension, as well as maintaining a regional bus system.

A 0.25 percent income tax would raise $52 million each year in the four counties: $22 million in Lake, $12 million in Porter, $5 million in LaPorte and $15 million in St. Joseph, according to Kenley.

The "super board" would be established at the beginning of 2010. It would have authority over the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District and a new regional bus board that would replace the Regional Bus Authority.

With just over three weeks left in the General Assembly session, however, House Bill 1607 could still change considerably.

Legislators said Tuesday Hershman's amendment might not be part of the final bill which emerges from negotiations at the end of the month.

"I think Sen. Hershman just wants to encourage folks up there to pay attention and enact some of these income taxes," Kenley said. "It makes it pretty hard to accomplish if you make (the existing three income taxes) part of the prescription."

Though he supports income taxes as a progressive way to fund government, Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, worried attaching too many taxes to the transit bill would doom it during late session negotiations.

"I wouldn't be for that. I prefer the bill to be clean and straightforward," Soliday said.

HB 1607 will next head to the full Senate, before being assigned to a conference committee.

Contact John Byrne at 317-631-7400 or jbyrne@post-trib.com

======================================================

Regional transportation district compromise worth the work

By state Sen. Karen Tallian | Wednesday, April 08, 2009

As it was sent over from the House of Representatives, House Bill 1607 requested an appropriation of about $53 million for the Northwest Indiana Commuter Transportation District. This money was to be used for a rerouting project in South Bend, a track project in Michigan City, and first-stage development work on the West Lake commuter rail line to Lowell. The source of that funding was to be the federal stimulus money dedicated to fixed rail projects.

Unfortunately, once the details of the federal stimulus package were finalized, it was determined that these projects do not qualify for the federal funds. In a last-minute attempt to help NICTD find funding for these projects, the bill was rewritten by the Senate sponsor, Sen. Luke Kenley. The amendment was presented to me late March 30 and approved by the Senate Homeland Security, Transportation and Veterans Affairs the following day.

NICTD is unique in this state. While other Indiana communities are looking to create regional transportation districts, ours has been in existence for decades. Indeed, it is the only one mature enough to be considered for a level or responsibility such as this.

Modeled after the system used in the Chicago area, the current proposal would change NICTD to an eight-member board consisting of one commissioner and one council member each from Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties. In addition to NICTD's current powers, these elected officials would be given the power to set a 0.25 percent local option income tax. Money raised across the entire region could be used for operating expenses. Money for capital projects would come from the county where the project is being done.

At this time, proposed bills in the Statehouse are still in flux. Legislators have a few weeks to hammer out a final solution. Legislators from "up north" often wrestle with a Statehouse that tends to be focused on Indianapolis. Now we have been handed a unique opportunity. Control over NICTD operation and expansion would be local, not in Indianapolis, and taxing authority would remain with the local elected officials.

We can respond in one of two ways. We can focus on the shortcomings of the initial proposal and just say "no." Or, we can take a closer look, identify the parts of the plan that make sense, and fix the parts that don't.

Contact me with your thoughts and opinions at s4@iga.in.gov or (800) 382-9467.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, represents Senate District 4, including portions of Lake and Porter counties. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

======================================================

Panel speaks out about RDA

By Susan O'Leary
Times Correspondent
| Wednesday, April 08, 2009

VALPARAISO | The Porter County Board of Commissioners voiced its opinions Tuesday about whether or not Porter County should pull out of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

Commissioner Bob Harper read a statement in favor of the county removing itself from the RDA, citing a fear of ever-increasing taxes.

Harper referred to a proposal in the state Legislature calling for a four-county transportation district that could impose a 0.25 percent income tax to support regional transportation and match federal funds for projects.

"It's not going to be enough," Harper said. "In two to three years, they'll be back again to ask for more money."

"In my opinion, this is insane," Harper said. "It will be tax after tax after tax. We will be like the suburbs of Chicago."

In response to proposals that the South Shore Line will extend to Valparaiso, Harper was certain.

"The South Shore is not coming to Valparaiso, whether this tax is passed or not," he said. "The population figures do not justify the South Shore to Valpo. We cannot get federal money for this line. We don't qualify -- we just don't."

Commissioner John Evans spoke in favor of remaining in the RDA, citing the benefits of the expansion of the Gary/Chicago International Airport. Commissioner Carole Knoblock followed up by saying she "never supported the RDA."

Vince Galbiati, of the Northwest Indiana Forum, spoke from the audience in favor of Porter County staying in the RDA.

"There are direct benefits to Porter County residents," Galbiati said. "The population is growing faster than your job growth," which Galbiati said creates a population of commuters who will need mass transit option to commute to work.

"You need structures like the RDA to build that infrastructure," he said.

======================================================

Transportation board would aid regionalism

April 5, 2009

A four-county transportation board is a significant step to advance regionalism in Northwest Indiana.

The proposed board, which has been approved by the Senate Transportation Committee and faces further scrutiny in the full Senate and the House, would oversee public mass transit in four counties: Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph.

The board would have the ability to levy an income tax of up to 0.25 percent and bond for major projects. If passed, it would raise $52 million a year in a relatively painless way. Importantly, it would take the votes of three of the four counties to proceed on any project.

Of course, the proposal -- patterned after the mass transit system in the greater Chicago area -- has some local politicians up in arms. "No more taxes!" they shout. "We don't need progress!" they argue. "Not in my back yard!" they scream.

It is for these very reasons the Senate proposal is a positive step forward for the region.

The failure of our local politicians at every turn to take measures to improve the region is why this bill exists.

The key strength of the proposal is that mass transit infrastructure isn't just good for future growth. It helps maintain what we have and allows the region to build on that base. The South Shore is an example. It has allowed people to work in Chicago but live, spend and pay taxes in Indiana with the money earned in Illinois.

The bill would allow commuter rail extensions eventually to Lowell and Valparaiso.

It also would create a regionalized bus system, something the Regional Bus Authority has failed utterly to do.

That helps residents move about communities, increasing job opportunities and growing the economy.

There are some local politicians who don't see this.

They should stand aside and make way for progress.

 

======================================================

Calls mount to defer Porter County secession from RDA
 

April 8, 2009

By Teresa Auch Schultz

Post-Tribune staff writer

Several local officials are calling for the Porter County Council to hold off on voting to leave the Regional Development Authority, saying such a move ignores the benefits of the group.

Councilman Dan Whitten has called for an end to the county's membership in the RDA, saying a proposed bill in the General Assembly right now to let the RDA impose a 0.25 percent income tax is too much. The council has set up a a meeting -- and possible vote -- at 5 p.m. today on the matter.

Rex Richards, president of the Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, says Whitten is ignoring all the benefits that Porter County has received from the RDA, including federal money for projects such as the Portage Lakefront Park and new Valparaiso public buses. Each of those projects received federal grants that had to have local matches. The only way to come up with those matches, Rex said, was through the unity of the RDA.

"I just know that if they look at the dollars invested and that have come back, it's definitely a net gain for Porter County," he said.

Portage Mayor Olga Velazquez said she could understand the council's concern about the possible new income tax but said she still agrees with the original purpose of the RDA, which was to focus on a regional bus system, the South Shore Line, the Gary/Chicago International Airport and the Marquette Plan.

And even though some of those projects, such as the airport, are in Lake County, the whole region benefits from them, she said.

"If some council members feel we've gotten off that focus, does that mean we just pull out?" Velazquez said. "No."

Instead, the county should work on moving back to what the RDA was founded on, she said.

Joyce Webster, chairwoman of the Porter County Republican Party, said in a press release that tonight's vote is just another in a long line of votes on spending that did not have a public hearing, including a meeting on the proceeds from Porter hospital. The meeting was canceled and has not been rescheduled.

"I find it odd that the council has put this topic at the top of their priorities all the while they remain silent on all other county issues that remain unresolved," she said in the release.

Richards added that the RDA helps spur economic development and job creation, which is especially important in today's economy.

The Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce had actually passed a resolution in support of the RDA a few weeks before Whitten announced the vote, and they're not alone in their support. The Duneland Chamber of Commerce passed a similar resolution a few years ago, and the board unanimously agreed this week that they remain in support of the RDA, Executive Director Heather Ennis said.

Ennis said she planned on attending tonight's meeting to speak in favor of the RDA.

The County Council should at least wait until finding out whether the proposed bill would become law, Ennis said. John Schmaltz, co-chairman of the Valparaiso Chamber's Public Affairs Committee, said that rushing to a vote tonight isn't doing justice to a "complex" issue. Right now the county doesn't know what would happen if it pulled out, he said, and more time is needed to look at all the specifics of the RDA.

"At the very least this is an issue that can wait another month or longer," Schmaltz said.

Contact Teresa Auch Schultz at 477-6015 or tauch@post-trib.com

======================================================

Memo to RDA: The public expects results

By Mark Kiesling Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Most people like paying taxes.

Even though they generally don't come out and say it in those words, people are happy not to have to police their own streets, put out their own house fires, truck their own garbage to a landfill or fill their own potholes.

That kind of service costs money, and that money is raised through taxes.

What people do not like is paying taxes to put politicians' relatives on payrolls, to put them behind the wheel of a car many cannot themselves afford or watch as connected contractors and consultants make big money for doing little or nothing in return.

In other words, they want to see results. Bang for their buck.

Keep that in mind as the Porter County Council votes tonight on whether to withdraw from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

For the past four years, Porter County has annually been kicking in $3.5 million to the RDA, and last fall several council candidates who ran on an anti-RDA platform won a majority on the seven-member body.

Last week's announcement of a proposed additional 0.25 percent income tax to fund further RDA participation appears to have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.

Whether Porter County can actually withdrawn from the RDA is up in the air. Councilwoman Karen Conover, R-Valparaiso, said the county is legally obligated to remain a part of the RDA through 2015, but whatever decision is made tonight will probably end up as an economic stimulus for lawyers.

But even if the decision is rendered symbolic, it is symbolic of a growing disenchantment with throwing money at a government body that is not showing signs of doing anything to enhance the quality of life in either Lake or Porter counties.

Regional Bus Authority President Dennis Rittenmeyer bailed out as of June 1, saying either the agency will be funded by unpopular taxes or it will cease to exist at the end of the year.

Even Porter County Council President Bob Poparad, D-Burns Harbor, who is on the fence on tonight's vote, said he is losing confidence in the RDA.

"I'm disappointed at the lack of results at the Gary airport, which was the foundation of my support for the RDA," he said.

Does this remind anyone else of that scene in the movie "Ghostbusters" where three recently fired academics discuss being desperate enough to seek work in the private sector?

"Personally, I liked the university," said Dan Aykroyd's character, Dr. Ray Stantz. "They gave us money and facilities, and we didn't have to produce anything. You don't know what it's like out there. I've worked in the private sector. They expect results."

Isn't it about time we started expecting results in the public sector as well?

The opinions are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at markk@nwitimes.com or (219) 933-4170.

======================================================

Groups urge county to remain in RDA

By Bob Kasarda
bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345
| Wednesday, April 08, 2009

VALPARAISO | The board of directors for the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce and the Portage Economic Development Corp. have called on the Porter County Council to refrain from pulling out of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

Of the more than $70 million in projects funded thus far by the RDA, nearly half have taken place in Porter County, chamber President Rex Richards said.

"Porter County can continue to expect returns on its investment through continued membership in the RDA," according to the resolution.

It appears the County Council has the votes necessary to pull out of the RDA and end the supporting income tax when it meets at 5 tonight. While there had been talk of the move prior, the sudden vote was triggered by news last week that state lawmakers have proposed the creation of a regional transportation district with taxing powers.

Richards said he believes it is premature to pull out of the RDA based on a proposal.

A statement from PEDCO echoes the chamber's argument that the county is receiving more funds than it has contributed.

"A vote by the County Council to withdraw from the RDA is a reckless step that may endanger future economic development projects for Porter County," PEDCO Executive Director Chris Stidham said. "This vote can be construed simply as political grandstanding that has no real value but to discourage a healthy relationship between Porter County and the RDA."

PEDCO, however, is opposed to any increase in taxes for transportation funding until further study and explanation can be provided.

Richards down played concerns among council members that the RDA has veered from such key priorities as funding improvements at the Gary airport and extending the South Shore railroad into Valparaiso and Lowell.

Those projects are still in the works and will take many years to develop, he said.

In the meantime, the RDA has funded smaller projects such as the lakefront and riverwalk project in Portage, while pooling the matching funds necessary to finally make the area eligible to receive federal funding, he said.

State Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, said the RDA vote is a distraction from the issue of increased property taxes.

"Their bigger problem is in front of them," Dobis said. "They have not just stepped in a bucket of manure. They've fallen into a big barrel of manure, and that is their bigger problem. ... They're trying to distract people by using this 0.25 percent (income tax) that's being talked about. It's not even a law yet."

Porter County Republican Chairman Joyce Webster suggested the council should not "renege" on its commitment to fund the RDA and instead should focus its efforts on issues like discussing the use of the Porter hospital sale proceeds, Major Moves funding or funding to improve County Road 100 South.

The council voted four years ago to collect about $7.5 million annually in income taxes, of which $3.5 million would go for annual RDA dues and the remaining $4 million for homestead credits for county homeowners.

======================================================

Income tax-backed transit plan could go to referendum

By Patrick Guinane
patrick.guinane@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078
| Wednesday, April 08, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS | Voters might get the final say in whether to create an income tax-funded transit authority to manage bus and commuter rail service in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.

But on Tuesday it was a top Senate fiscal leader who added his two cents.

Senate Tax Chairman Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, tacked on an amendment that would force the four counties to pass a series of local income taxes before tapping a proposed 0.25 income tax to fund the new transit authority. The forced income taxes would be dedicated to reducing property taxes.

"Before we're going to allow the imposition of a brand new income tax, we need to provide some property tax relief," Hershman said. "Jasper County -- right next door to Lake County -- already has, and property tax payers saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent relief as a result."

Other legislators deemed Hershman's amendment a bargaining maneuver that ensures the transit legislation will be routed to a House-Senate conference committee for further negotiation. It's also a sign legislators still want Lake County to pass an income tax devoted to easing property taxes.

"I think that's what he's saying," said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville. "He just wants to remind them that it's there."

Kenley, the author of the legislation, said he likely will offer an amendment next week to set up a referendum allowing voters in the four counties to decide whether they want to create the transit district. It would be governed by a nine-member board of elected officials who could impose a local income tax of up to 0.25 percent in each county without approval from county councils.

The proposed taxing power, which could raise more than $50 million a year, has drawn fire from Porter County officials, though none of them registered complaints Tuesday at a Statehouse hearing regarding the measure.

"It's interesting that the Porter County Council is having an emergency meeting and didn't bother to show up at the public hearing," said Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso. "They seem to want to have some kind of public show instead of being part of the decision making."

The council is scheduled to meet tonight to consider ending its $3.5 million annual contribution to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, which was created in 2005 to help fund South Shore rail extensions to Lowell and Valparaiso. Supporters now say the income taxes included in the new transit legislation are needed to help cover the local half of the $1 billion rail expansion tab. WHAT HAPPENED: Legislation to create an income tax-funded transit district to oversee bus and rail service in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties cleared the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee on a 9-2 vote.
WHAT'S NEXT: The legislation, House Bill 1607, moves before the full Senate, where Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, plans to add an amendment allowing voters in the four counties to decide, via referendum, whether they want to create the district.
WHAT'S NEW: In a move most observers saw as a bargaining maneuver, Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, added an amendment Tuesday that would force each of the four counties to adopt a series of local income taxes dedicated to property tax relief before they could tap the transit income tax.
Hershman's amendment would require the counties to:


1. Adopt an income tax, likely about 0.3 percent, to freeze property tax levies at current rates and fund future increases in local government budgets via the income tax.
 

2. Pass an income tax of at least 0.25 percent (up to 1 percent) and use all of the proceeds to reduce property taxes.
 

3. Impose a third income tax of up to 0.25 percent and use all of the proceeds to help fund police, fire protection and other public safety needs.

======================================================

RDA will remain RBA's engine

By Keith Benman
keith.benman@nwi.com,

(219) 933-3326 | Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority intends to go "full speed ahead" in supporting the Regional Bus Authority, despite proposed legislation that could put it out of business, the RDA chairman said.

"I think No. 1, we're at the point right now where we are focused on getting the right business plan in place for the RBA," RDA Chairman Leigh Morris said Wednesday.

That includes following through on a $170,000 consultant's study now under way that would "fast-track" bus consolidation in Northwest Indiana, Morris said.

The RDA is the bus authority's main financial backer and since 2006 has approved $6.9 million in grants for the agency's efforts to consolidate region bus services. The RBA has not yet received all that money.

The RDA chairman's comments came one day after an Indiana Senate committee approved proposed legislation to establish a four-county, supertransit agency and put the RBA and Gary Public Transportation Corp. out of business by Jan. 1, 2010.

It also comes one day after the House author of that legislation, Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, once again knocked the RBA as dysfunctional.

"Our RBA -- Regional Bus Authority -- today is a disaster," Dobis told the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday. "We have absolutely no idea where they’re going."

RBA President Dennis Rittenmeyer said neither he nor other transit agency heads were consulted about the legislation. Its passage in the Senate committee Tuesday came as a surprise, he said.

"They didn't want anyone to know because some people might have said that's not good," Rittenmeyer said. "I think what's dysfunctional is the Indiana General Assembly."

When contacted Wednesday, Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District and Gary Public Transportation Corp. officials both said the legislation's new provisions came as a surprise to them. They said it would take some time to sift through the details.

The supertransit agency proposed in Dobis' legislation would oversee bus operations and the South Shore commuter railroad in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.

It would be made up of elected officials from each county and a gubernatorial appointment and would have the power to levy an income tax of up to 0.25 percent on residents of the four counties.

When asked if money spent so far on the RBA has been wasted, Morris responded unequivocally.

"Absolutely not," he said. "If it is dissolved, something else will have to take its place. And that something else will need exactly what's being done now."

======================================================

Porter County Council plans vote on withdrawal from RDA

By Ken Kosky
ken.kosky@nwi.com,

(219) 548-4354 | Thursday, April 02, 2009

VALPARAISO | Porter County Council members say they will vote next week on whether to stop contributing millions of dollars a year to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority -- a move that would put extra money in taxpayers' pockets but would kill plans to expand the South Shore commuter railroad to Valparaiso.

Councilman Dan Whitten said it's bad enough that Porter County has been paying $3.5 million a year in income taxes to join with Lake County in the RDA to fund commuter rail service and other development.

But on Tuesday, state lawmakers proposed creating a new regional transportation district that could impose a new 0.25 percent income tax to residents in Porter, Lake, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties to fund bus and commuter rail service in those four counties.

"I hope I have four votes (to get Porter County out of the RDA)," Whitten said.

"Every time I turn around there's a new tax proposed. I think it's time to cut the cord all around. I'm sick of sending money to Lake County. We simply can't afford it anymore."

Whitten said it's ridiculous that in these tough economic times, when people are having trouble paying their bills, that government is pushing more taxes. Whitten said he would like to get out of the RDA and return that tax money to the people. He also plans to fight for Porter County to be excluded from the proposed four-county income tax.

Council member Laura Blaney also expressed dismay because the $3.5 million Porter County has been contributing to the RDA was supposed to fund rail expansion, and now state lawmakers are saying an extra tax is needed.

"It's just getting out of hand...It's time for the government to tighten their belt, too," Blaney said.

Blaney said she doesn't understand why government is trying to take more money from people when they're struggling to pay the taxes already in place. Blaney said the council, at Wednesday's meeting, will also tackle the issue of whether to allow taxpayers to pay their property taxes in an installment plan instead of all at once. She's hopeful an installment plan will be put into place.

Whitten, who voted against Porter County becoming involved in the RDA, said the RDA hasn't delivered what it promised and it's time to stop subsidizing that group.

"It's time to revolt," Whitten said.

"Come Wednesday, we're going to put it all on the table."

======================================================

Senate Pushes Transit Taxing Board For Region
 

April 1, 2009

By John Byrne Post-Tribune staff writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Legislative supporters of rail and bus funding for Northwest Indiana are trying a new tack to get local taxpayers to foot the bills for the projects.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted Tuesday to create a four-county regional transportation district em-powered to levy an income tax as high as 0.25 percent to pay for mass transit in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.

The ambitious plan could raise $52 million per year to subsidize big-ticket capital projects and operating expenses, circumventing the local officials who have been unwilling or unable to adopt a tax themselves, particularly in Lake County.

If the income tax were levied at its maximum amount for each county, Lake County residents would kick in $22 million annually, Porter $12 million, LaPorte $5 million and St. Joseph $15 million, according to Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who offered the proposal as an amendment to a House transportation bill.

Not coincidentally, Kenley's plan could pay the $350 million local share of the $1 billion-plus South Shore rail extension to Lowell and Valparaiso, and underwrite bus service in the area.

"There is a rough correlation there," Kenley, R-Noblesville, told the committee in explaining why he settled on a 0.25 percent maximum.

The nine-member, first-of-its-kind "super board" Kenley envisions would include a county council member and a county commissioner from each county, as well as a governor-appointed chairman, who would vote only to break ties.

The state budget agency would get final say on how high an income tax residents of each county would get saddled with, taking into account the capital improvement needs in each county, and the number of passengers and passenger miles each county contributes to regional mass transit.

Lake County, where a lot of work is required to complete the South Shore extension, might get a high capital assessment.

St. Joseph County requires less construction, but passengers heading into Chicago travel farther, adding to the operating assessment as the state figures an appropriate tax.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has pledged $500 million in federal transportation funds for the rail extension.

But the project has foundered in the General Assembly for lack of local matching revenue.

State Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, said there seems to be greater momentum to get something done now.

"I'm more optimistic now than I was at this time last year," said Dobis, a staunch supporter of the South Shore rail project.

Before it becomes law, however, the package has to get approval from the full Senate and head to conference committee for further consideration. If it does run that gauntlet, the bill may end up looking far different from the one approved Tuesday.

Other provisions

In addition to funding bus and rail systems in the region, the board would set goals and standards for those divisions to meet.

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, administrator of the South Shore commuter rail line, would report to the new board.

So would a bus service division created by the statute, which could spell the end of the Regional Bus Authority.

Dobis, author of the transit bill Kenley amended, voiced his disdain for the RBA during testimony Tuesday.

"Our RBA … today, is a disaster," Dobis told the committee. "We have no idea where they're going."

Revealing a possible point of contention as the bill advances, committee member Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, defended the RBA.

"There are many among us who don't consider the RBA a disaster," she said.

Though she believes it will cut the RBA out of administering the region's troubled bus system, Rogers nonetheless voted for the proposal because it acknowledges the need for buses in Lake County.

Kenley's amendment stripped out of the bill language that would have directed $35 million in federal stimulus funds to South Shore rail projects in Lake County, Michigan City and South Bend.

The bill passed the Transportation Committee 8-0, and will next head to the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee for more debate.

Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, chairs Tax and Fiscal Policy.

He has expressed reservations about allowing Lake County to raise new taxes, arguing elected officials in Indiana's northwest corner haven't done enough to cut spending.

But Hershman said the cross-county membership of Kenley's board quiets his concerns.

"It makes me feel a little better that there would be a level of regional collaboration," he said.

Contact John Byrne at 317-631-7400 or jbyrne@post-trib.com.

======================================================

Foes Of Plan Will Likely Be Vocal
April 1, 2009

By Erik Potter Post-Tribune staff writer

Local reaction is mixed to the state plan that would create a four-county transportation district stretching from Lake to St. Joseph counties.

Porter County Commissioner Bob Harper called the bill a back-door attempt to impose another income tax on Porter County residents. Harper has been an outspoken critic of any additional tax to pay for an expansion of the South Shore Railroad into Lowell and Valparaiso, a project the proposed district could fund with its income taxing authority.

"I am furious," Harper said. "The people should be able to elect people who decide whether an additional tax is put on them. ... You can rest assured that I am going to fight this with my last breath."

Lake County Commissioner Fran Dupey, D-Hammond, holds a similar view.

"Once they get this tax, they'll tack everything else onto this," Dupey said, reciting a litany of past causes that an income tax was needed for, including last winter's property tax relief. "Anybody who supports this will regret it in the long run. ... All it takes is a scratch of a pen, a little change in the legislation and you've got an all-new ball game."

By varying degrees, the bill caught Northwest Indiana officials by surprise.

John Parsons, spokesman for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which operates the South Shore Railroad, said he wasn't able to comment on the bill, since NICTD staff had not had a chance to examine the legislation.

The bill would place NICTD and a new "district-wide bus service" under the authority of a regional transportation district.

The new bus service would likely replace the Regional Bus Authority, news that outgoing RBA President Dennis Rittenmeyer was left to wonder about when he learned of the bill Tuesday morning.

"Nobody who has been directly involved in (transportation) knew anything about it," he said, calling it a typical road block thrown up by the region's lawmakers.

Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr., a proponent of regional busing, said at first blush the bill sounded fine to him.

He said he likes the idea of bringing NICTD and regional busing under one roof, and breaking through the municipal boundaries of Lake County's current busing system.

"If I get on a regional bus in Hammond, I could go to another county, to Crown Point, to Schererville. That's what I'd like to see happen. If it takes a tax increase to make that happen, I'd be in favor of it," he said, stressing that he'd need to see a lot more details first before he'd sign on to the current proposal.

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas said he also supports regional bus transportation, but would want to see a workable, publicly supported transportation plan before any tax increase is approved.

"The first thing they need to do is lay out what the advantages might be and what the costs might be and then guage the public support," Costas said, rather than create a new transportation district, pass a tax, and then decide what to do with the money.

Contact Erik Potter at 648-3120, or epotter@post-trib.com.

======================================================

Senate pushes transit taxing board for region

April 1, 2009

By John Byrne Post-Tribune staff writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Legislative supporters of rail and bus funding for Northwest Indiana are trying a new tack to get local taxpayers to foot the bills for the projects.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted Tuesday to create a four-county regional transportation district em-powered to levy an income tax as high as 0.25 percent to pay for mass transit in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.

The ambitious plan could raise $52 million per year to subsidize big-ticket capital projects and operating expenses, circumventing the local officials who have been unwilling or unable to adopt a tax themselves, particularly in Lake County.

If the income tax were levied at its maximum amount for each county, Lake County residents would kick in $22 million annually, Porter $12 million, LaPorte $5 million and St. Joseph $15 million, according to Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who offered the proposal as an amendment to a House transportation bill.

Not coincidentally, Kenley's plan could pay the $350 million local share of the $1 billion-plus South Shore rail extension to Lowell and Valparaiso, and underwrite bus service in the area.

"There is a rough correlation there," Kenley, R-Noblesville, told the committee in explaining why he settled on a 0.25 percent maximum.

The nine-member, first-of-its-kind "super board" Kenley envisions would include a county council member and a county commissioner from each county, as well as a governor-appointed chairman, who would vote only to break ties.

The state budget agency would get final say on how high an income tax residents of each county would get saddled with, taking into account the capital improvement needs in each county, and the number of passengers and passenger miles each county contributes to regional mass transit.

Lake County, where a lot of work is required to complete the South Shore extension, might get a high capital assessment.

St. Joseph County requires less construction, but passengers heading into Chicago travel farther, adding to the operating assessment as the state figures an appropriate tax.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, has pledged $500 million in federal transportation funds for the rail extension.

But the project has foundered in the General Assembly for lack of local matching revenue.

State Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, said there seems to be greater momentum to get something done now.

"I'm more optimistic now than I was at this time last year," said Dobis, a staunch supporter of the South Shore rail project.

Before it becomes law, however, the package has to get approval from the full Senate and head to conference committee for further consideration. If it does run that gauntlet, the bill may end up looking far different from the one approved Tuesday.

Other provisions

In addition to funding bus and rail systems in the region, the board would set goals and standards for those divisions to meet.

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, administrator of the South Shore commuter rail line, would report to the new board.

So would a bus service division created by the statute, which could spell the end of the Regional Bus Authority.

Dobis, author of the transit bill Kenley amended, voiced his disdain for the RBA during testimony Tuesday.

"Our RBA today, is a disaster," Dobis told the committee. "We have no idea where they're going."

Revealing a possible point of contention as the bill advances, committee member Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, defended the RBA.

"There are many among us who don't consider the RBA a disaster," she said.

Though she believes it will cut the RBA out of administering the region's troubled bus system, Rogers nonetheless voted for the proposal because it acknowledges the need for buses in Lake County.

Kenley's amendment stripped out of the bill language that would have directed $35 million in federal stimulus funds to South Shore rail projects in Lake County, Michigan City and South Bend.

The bill passed the Transportation Committee 8-0, and will next head to the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee for more debate.

Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, chairs Tax and Fiscal Policy.

He has expressed reservations about allowing Lake County to raise new taxes, arguing elected officials in Indiana's northwest corner haven't done enough to cut spending.

But Hershman said the cross-county membership of Kenley's board quiets his concerns.

"It makes me feel a little better that there would be a level of regional collaboration," he said.

Contact John Byrne at 317-631-7400 or jbyrne@post-trib.com.

======================================================

Income tax linked to NWI transit funding

By Patrick Guinane
patrick.guinane@nwi.com,

(317) 637-9078 | Wednesday, April 01, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS | State lawmakers unveiled plans Tuesday to create a regional transportation district that would impose local income taxes to fund bus and commuter rail service in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.

The proposal, offered by Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, could provide the $350 million over 25 years that Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, is seeking to extend South Shore lines to Lowell and Valparaiso. And municipal bus agencies, including those in East Chicago, Gary, Hammond and the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority, would dissolve Jan. 1 and be replaced by a four-county system.

MORE: Read the legislation.

"I think we're negotiating a concept that has a great deal of value for Northwest Indiana," Kenley said. "Representative Dobis and I, along with Congressman (Pete) Visclosky, did meet in the governor's office to discuss this possibility about three weeks ago. This is reflective of my thinking. It's not endorsed by the governor at this point."

RBA Executive Director Tim Brown said he attended a hearing on the legislation but had not read the bill as of Tuesday. Brown said it's too early to fully tell what the legislation would mean to his agency.

The legislation, House Bill 1607, would create a nine-member transportation district to be governed by one county council member and one commissioner from each of the four counties and a tie-breaking chairman appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The board would have the authority to impose a local income tax of up to 0.25 percent in each of the four counties, which combined could raise up to $52 million a year without prior approval from county councils.

"I think any representative from Porter County that supports this bill is selling the county down the drain," fumed Porter County Commissioner Bob Harper, a Democrat. "It's a horrid piece of legislation."

But Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, and other region legislators familiar with Kenley's plan called it a good start toward addressing local transit needs when property tax caps are biting city budgets. But lawmakers realize the income tax provision will draw scorn.

"I'm sure we'll hear from our constituents," said Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary.

While the income tax is likely to prove unpopular, the transit legislation would save nearly $4 million a year in property taxes by abolishing the Gary Public Transit Corp. Other bus agencies, including the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority, don't levy property taxes directly, though their elimination would ease city budgets.

Dobis, who has sought South Shore expansion funding since 2007, said he hopes the transit plan can be massaged into a final deal before lawmakers adjourn April 29.

"It's the Yogi Berra theory: It ain't over 'til it's over," Dobis said. "I'm more hopeful than I was at this point last year." House Bill 1607, now headed to the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee, would:

-- Create a four-county regional transportation district composed of one county council member and one commissioner from each county (Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties). Gov. Mitch Daniels would appoint a chairman solely responsible for breaking tie votes.
-- Allow the district to impose a county income tax of up to 0.25 percent in each of the four counties, with individual tax rates proportional to transit spending per county. Lake and Porter counties, for instance, might pay higher tax rates to fund South Shore extensions to Lowell and Valparaiso.
-- Make the South Shore commuter railroad report to the new regional transportation district.
-- Create an 11-member bus service board that reports to the regional transportation district in the same way the South Shore would for rail.
-- Dissolve the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority and municipal bus agencies -- and any property taxes they charge -- effective Jan. 1 and place their operations under the new bus service board.
-- Have no impact on a 2007 state law freezing most property tax budgets in Lake County until the county adopts a 1 percent income tax dedicated to property tax relief.

A 0.25 percent income tax would raise the following amounts per year:
Lake County -- $22 million
Porter County -- $12 million
LaPorte County -- $5 million
St. Joseph County -- $15 million

======================================================

Key lawmaker links income tax to NWI transit funding plan

By Patrick Guinane
patrick.guinane@nwi.com,

(317) 637-9078 | Tuesday, March 31, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS | State lawmakers unveiled plans Tuesday to create a regional transportation district that could impose local income taxes to fund bus and commuter rail service in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and St. Joseph counties.

The proposal, offered by Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, could provide the long-term funding Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, is seeking to extend South Shore service to Lowell and Valparaiso. The plan also is intended to spur truly regional bus service amid waning property tax revenues that threaten municipal routes.

The legislation, House Bill 1607, would create a nine-member transportation district to be governed by one commissioner and one county council member from each of the four counties and a tie-breaking chairman appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The board would have the authority to impose local income taxes of up to 0.25 percent in each of the four counties without prior approval from county councils. The tax rates would be linked to the amount of bus and rail investments made in each county.

“I think we’re negotiating a concept that has a great deal of value for Northwest Indiana,” Kenley told the Senate Homeland Security, Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committee.

The panel approved the measure on an 8-0 vote, sending it to the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee for further review

======================================================

Rittenmeyer elevated push for bus service
March 20, 2009

Lake County owes Dennis Rittenmeyer a debt of gratitude.

Without him, the issue of expanded public transportation -- particularly bus service -- would not have been moved to the fore after more than a decade of discussion.

Rittenmeyer was named chairman when the Regional Transportation Committee was formed in 2000. Because of Rittenmeyer's tenacity, the Regional Transportation Authority was formed a year later.

The Transportation Authority ultimately evolved into the Regional Bus Authority. Through the years, Rittenmeyer was the steady voice for expansion of bus service across Lake County.

For reasons known only to Rittenmeyer, he is stepping down as chairman of the Bus Authority around June 1.

Perhaps he just has had enough and wants to focus the majority of his time on serving as president of Calumet College of St. Joseph. Rittenmeyer has made great strides in elevating the college and launched the most ambitious capital project in the school's history.

While running the college, he continued over the years to fight for expanded bus service in Lake County.

It hasn't been an easy route. Rittenmeyer has run into political walls over the course of a decade. He won the fight to allow for the enactment of a food and beverage tax to fund bus service, but the tax has never been adopted.

But his efforts haven't been in vain. As he is about to step down, the RBA is hiring a consultant to help direct consolidation of Gary, Hammond and East Chicago bus systems. And NWI legislators are renewing a push for a fixed funding source.

It is the determination of people like Rittenmeyer that makes NWI succeed. Thanks, Dennis.

======================================================

McDermott Off And Stumbling as Lake Dem Chair
 

March 20, 2009

 

By Rich James

Post-Tribune staff writer

Someone asked the other day if I was surprised that Tom McDermott was elected Lake County Democratic chairman.

About the only way I can answer that is to say I didn't realize incumbent Rudy Clay was that weak.

So why did it happen? Combination of things.

1. Lake Democrats were still smarting from 2005, when the state Central Committee told the county that Clay was going to be the chairman, even though the vast majority of Lake Democrats wanted to keep Stephen Stiglich.

2. Clay, while a nice fellow, turned out to be a poor chairman.

3. Although McDermott turned Democratic six years ago to advance his political career, he represents a certain newness -- someone who may have to carry the weight of an inflated ego, but not the taint of public corruption.

Yet, minutes after winning the chairmanship, McDermott made his first mistake.

McDermott backed off on his vow to back Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin for vice chair.

So four months after the county played a major role in handing Indiana to Barack Obama, the county Democratic Central Committee doesn't have a black officer.

Some 33 percent of the county's Democratic vote is black, yet there isn't an African-American on the central committee. Some might call that the ultimate snub.

Although McDermott made his first mistake just minutes after being elected, it took him a couple days to step in the doo-doo a second time.

McDermott told the Howey Report -- a political publication headquartered in Indianapolis -- that he is in lock step with Gov. Mitch Daniels' local government reform.

Yeah, Tom Terrific says, we don't need three county commissioners, and we ought to have a county administrator who would appoint other county officials. And even though North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan Jr. backed him for chairman, Tom Boy said we ought to eliminate the trustees as well.

When questioned back home about his comments, he said he offered that up for the folks downstate to help his run for governor.

Duh. We no longer are in the horse-and-buggy era, and what you tell someone 150 miles away will come back to haunt you in a split second.

So, two days after being elected chairman, Tommy the Gun is advocating the reorganization of county government without contacting the folks who elected him.

It took all of a week for the third screw-up.

In order to make up for failing to back Elgin for vice chair, Tom pushed county Recorder Mike Brown for chairman of the 1st Congressional District last Saturday.

It isn't that Brown isn't a qualified guy. The problem is that Brown and Clay are tight. And because Elgin and Clay aren't particularly close, McDermott wasn't appeasing that portion of the black community opposed to Clay.

Brown lost 8-2.

And while he is flying high, the new chairman isn't done yet. He's now toying with replacing some of the town and city chairmen.

Why? Because he can.

I don't know if Tom will be a good chairman, but he'll be just as entertaining as a Three Stooges movie.

Contact Rich James, the Post-Tribune editorial page editor, at 648-3117 or rjames@post-trib.com.

======================================================

RBA accepts 'fast-track' command on buses

By Keith Benman
keith.benman@nwi.com,

(219) 933-3326 | Tuesday, March 17, 2009

By mid-April, bus riders in Northwest Indiana will be able to see what a consolidated bus system for Hammond, East Chicago and Gary would look like.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority board voted Monday to pay consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff $170,000 to deliver a "fast-track" plan for consolidating those three bus services as well as dial-a-ride services.

The vote came four days after the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority gave the RBA marching orders to hire Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Some RBA members hesitated to vote for the measure. RBA member and Lake County Councilman Tom O'Donnell pointed out the RBA three years ago paid consultant TranSystems $625,000 for a similar report.

Board Vice President Steve Adik, who chaired the meeting, reminded board members about the urgency of doing as the RDA wanted.

"There is a carrot and stick on this, whether we like it or not," Adik said. "This is what is requested of us. If we say no, then we are most likely at war with the RDA, which will get us nowhere."

The RDA has financed RBA operations with $6.9 million in grants and is the RBA's only source of funds.

Bus service in Lake County has been collapsing because of tax caps mandated by the Indiana General Assembly, with the county's dominant dial-a-ride service already out of business and Hammond Transit struggling to keep running.

======================================================

Hammond buses will continue

Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr., at the same time as the RDA meeting was in progress, promised to not shut down the Hammond Transit System on June 30 as is currently planned.

Two weeks ago, McDermott said he was looking at how to keep the bus system operating and hoping that federal stimulus money could be used to give the system a two-year life extension. Whether any stimulus money will be available for that remains to be seen, but McDermott said his commitment to keep the system going would remain regardless.

The difference between the closing of the health department last year and the closing of the bus system this year is that there's no county agency to fill the void this time, McDermott said. "Once we get rid of the buses, there's nothing there."

McDermott did not include funding for the bus system in his initial 2009 budget, later adding partial funding to last through the first half of the year. McDermott said he will begin lobbying the city council to restore funding for the remainder of the year while admitting that he wasn't sure where the money would come from.

======================================================

RBA adds $170,000 bus consolidation consultant
 

March 17, 2009

By Erik Potter Post-Tribune staff writer

MERRILLVILLE -- The Regional Bus Authority approved as much as $170,000 for a consultant team to put together a plan to consolidate the Hammond, Gary and East Chicago bus systems.

The moves comes a day before the Regional Development Authority, which funds the RBA's operations through a $6 million grant, is expected to "direct" the RBA to do just that, with the possibility that further distributions of the $6 million grant may be suspended if they do not.

The RBA was created by the state legislature in order to regionalize Northwest Indiana's bus systems. The RDA was created, in part, to help fund that effort.

With budget shortfalls causing the Northwest Indiana Community Action Corp. shutting down their bus service at the end of January and Hammond Transit System on the verge of shutting down at the end of June, RDA board members are pushing for a faster timeline for consolidation.

In Parsons Brinckerhoff, a New York-based consulting firm with expertise in transit consolidation, RDA board members think they've found the tool to move that process forward quicker.

RBA members were reluctant to sign on, however, because the $170,000 will come out of their grant money -- money that had already been earmarked for different things, primarily an express bus route to Chicago from west Lake County.

The RBA has already been criticized for spending big money on previous transit studies with little to show for it in terms of results on the ground.

"We've got what Rudy Clay calls the 'paralysis of analysis,'" quipped RBA Board Member and Lake County Councilman Tom O'Donnell, D-Dyer.

In the end, however, the board voted unanimously for the measure.

In other business, Vice President Stephen Adik said he was not interested in being the permanent replacement for Board President Dennis Rittenmeyer. Rittenmeyer plans to resign from the board no later than June 1. Adik, who is from Porter County, said that it would not make sense politically to have a Porter County representative serve as board president because the major issues the RBA is dealing with are in Lake County.

Contact Erik Potter at 648-3120, or epotter@post-trib.com

======================================================

RDA pushes bus authority ahead on consolidation

March 13, 2009

By Erik Potter Post-Tribune staff writer

CROWN POINT -- The Regional Development Authority is trying to give a jump start to efforts to consolidate Lake County's three city bus systems.

At a committee meeting Thursday, the RDA?directed the Regional Bus Authority to hire a consultant to put together a consolidation plan and implement it.

The RDA and RBA have been meeting in a series of "transportation summits" with representatives from the New York-based consulting firm Parsons Brinkerhoff. The firm's report from those meetings was released at the RDA meeting.

The findings were in part an indictment of the RBA's progress in regionalizing bus service, criticizing its level of engagement with the Gary, East Chicago and Hammond bus systems and its failure to build public support for transit.

RDA chairman Leigh Morris proposed that the RDA take over the leadership position on consolidation and hire Parsons Brinkerhoff itself and direct consolidation through them, starting with the development of a detailed consolidation plan, followed by implementation of the plan by July 1, which is when Hammond's bus system is set to shut down.

Board members objected to the RDA's direct leadership in the effort and questioned whether a consolidation plan, rather than a funding source for regional transit, should be the first priority.

One of the criticisms leveled against the RBA when it was seeking the Lake County Council's support in January for a food and beverage tax was that it had no plan in place for how it would regionalize the systems.

"How can we ask for anybody's support when we don't know what we're talking about?" a frustrated Morris asked. "We have no plan!"

In the end, the board decided to direct the RBA to hire Parsons Brinkerhoff to develop a consolidation plan. The motion did not contain an explicit deadline for when the consolidated system should be implemented, but Morris, citing the Parsons report, maintains that July 1 is "aggressive,"?but not impossible.

RBA Executive Director Tim Brown called the developments positive. "I encourage it," he said. "(Parsons) has the expertise. We don't have the expertise."?

In other business, the committee recommended that the full board consider a $28.1 million request from Gary to renovate Marquette Park.

The plan calls for renovations to the landscape, buildings and wildlife areas and would be completed by March 2011.

Contact Erik Potter at 648-3120, or epotter@post-trib.com. Comment on this story at www.post-trib.com.

Hammond buses will continue

Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr., at the same time as the RDA meeting was in progress, promised to not shut down the Hammond Transit System on June 30 as is currently planned.

Two weeks ago, McDermott said he was looking at how to keep the bus system operating and hoping that federal stimulus money could be used to give the system a two-year life extension. Whether any stimulus money will be available for that remains to be seen, but McDermott said his commitment to keep the system going would remain regardless.

The difference between the closing of the health department last year and the closing of the bus system this year is that there's no county agency to fill the void this time, McDermott said. "Once we get rid of the buses, there's nothing there."

McDermott did not include funding for the bus system in his initial 2009 budget, later adding partial funding to last through the first half of the year. McDermott said he will begin lobbying the city council to restore funding for the remainder of the year while admitting that he wasn't sure where the money would come from.

======================================================

Time for a new leader to start driving this bus

Friday, March 13, 2009

I have mixed feelings about Dennis Rittenmeyer's resignation as both president and a member of the Regional Bus Authority.

Dennis and I have had many long conversations about public transportation in Northwest Indiana.

He sees the need, as do I, to serve people who either can't drive, don't own a car or simply choose an alternative form of transportation.

He grieves, as I do, for the loss of demand-response service to much of Lake County when Northwest Indiana Community Action cancelled its service.

He knows, as I do, that when commuter rail service is expanded in Northwest Indiana, buses will need to coordinate their schedules with the train schedules to move people with greater efficiency.

And he knows, as I do, that unless a permanent funding source is found for the RBA, the region's bus service is in deep, deep trouble.

In his March 10 letter of resignation, Rittenmeyer wrote of these issues.

"This is a pivotal year for public transportation in Northwest Indiana," Rittenmeyer said in an incredible understatement. "Fiscal constraints imposed by the tax caps are forcing municipal governments to reduce their expenditures, and public transportation has been among the first services to be constrained."

And now, Rittenmeyer said in his letter, the RBA either needs a permanent funding source or will close up shop on Dec. 31.

Rittenmeyer has been, and remains, a strong proponent of public transportation.

But his resignation allows the discussion to shift to the issue of public transportation itself and not just the battle of wills between Rittenmeyer and South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Speros Batistatos, who has taken the RBA to task over the food and beverage tax proposal.

Batistatos -- representing hotels and restaurants, among others -- wants that food and beverage tax to be used for the hospitality industry if it is ever implemented. He has fought Rittenmeyer more than once on the RBA quest to gain that 1 percent sales tax on restaurant food and drinks.

So with Rittenmeyer steeping down as of June 1, or sooner if a replacement is named beforehand, someone else will need to pick up the RBA's banner and lead the charge for a permanent funding source. If not the food and beverage tax, then what?

What's good about Rittenmeyer's resignation is that it forces the RBA to show it isn't a one-man band.

The RBA now needs to develop a strong plan for integrating all bus services in the region and make its case for the local funding necessary to operate it. Then the region's leaders need to find a solution to this problem.

The failure to provide at least minimal bus service would be a travesty.

Editorial Page Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

======================================================

RDA pushes bus authority ahead on consolidation
March 13, 2009

By Erik Potter Post-Tribune staff writer

CROWN POINT -- The Regional Development Authority is trying to give a jump start to efforts to consolidate Lake County's three city bus systems.

At a committee meeting Thursday, the RDA?directed the Regional Bus Authority to hire a consultant to put together a consolidation plan and implement it.

The RDA and RBA have been meeting in a series of "transportation summits" with representatives from the New York-based consulting firm Parsons Brinkerhoff. The firm's report from those meetings was released at the RDA meeting.

The findings were in part an indictment of the RBA's progress in regionalizing bus service, criticizing its level of engagement with the Gary, East Chicago and Hammond bus systems and its failure to build public support for transit.

RDA chairman Leigh Morris proposed that the RDA take over the leadership position on consolidation and hire Parsons Brinkerhoff itself and direct consolidation through them, starting with the development of a detailed consolidation plan, followed by implementation of the plan by July 1, which is when Hammond's bus system is set to shut down.

Board members objected to the RDA's direct leadership in the effort and questioned whether a consolidation plan, rather than a funding source for regional transit, should be the first priority.

One of the criticisms leveled against the RBA when it was seeking the Lake County Council's support in January for a food and beverage tax was that it had no plan in place for how it would regionalize the systems.

"How can we ask for anybody's support when we don't know what we're talking about?" a frustrated Morris asked. "We have no plan!"

In the end, the board decided to direct the RBA to hire Parsons Brinkerhoff to develop a consolidation plan. The motion did not contain an explicit deadline for when the consolidated system should be implemented, but Morris, citing the Parsons report, maintains that July 1 is "aggressive,"?but not impossible.

RBA Executive Director Tim Brown called the developments positive. "I encourage it," he said. "(Parsons) has the expertise. We don't have the expertise."?

In other business, the committee recommended that the full board consider a $28.1 million request from Gary to renovate Marquette Park.

The plan calls for renovations to the landscape, buildings and wildlife areas and would be completed by March 2011.

Contact Erik Potter at 648-3120, or epotter@post-trib.com.

======================================================

Report: More "urgency" needed on bus consolidation

By Keith Benman
keith.benman@nwi.com,

 (219) 933-3326 | Friday, March 13, 2009

The Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority likely will not meet a July 1 deadline for consolidating bus services, a report delivered to the Regional Development Authority concludes.

The report from transportation consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff calls for more urgency in the effort.

"Work has been done, but we are simply not where we have to be at this point," RDA Chairman Leigh Morris told four other members of the board at a meeting Thursday.

The report also concludes that bus services in Hammond, East Chicago and Gary could be merged using current financing provided by those cities.

That would yield about $500,000 in savings, according to an early Parsons Brinckerhoff report.

But consolidating just those three bus services would fall far short of the regional bus service the RDA has envisioned. A previous report estimated the effort would take about $8 million per year in extra funding.

In response to the report, the RDA has told the RBA to hire Parsons Brinckerhoff to come up with a concrete plan for consolidating bus companies, including routes, fares and other details.

The RDA also wants to impose a timeline on the RDA for implementation of the consolidation under a motion passed 5-0 at the RDA committee meeting. Those actions must be ratified by the full RDA board at its meeting next week.

The action comes one day after the RDA learned about the resignation of longtime RBA President Dennis Rittenmeyer, who announced this week he will step down by June 1.

The RDA action appears to sidestep the issue of long-term funding for regional bus service, which Rittenmeyer cited as the major problem standing in its way.

A move to secure a food and beverage tax to fund regional bus service has been attacked from many quarters.

At the same time, the region's dominant dial-a-ride service for the elderly and handicapped bus service shut down for lack of funding in January, and Hammond Transit also remains in long-term danger of shutting down.

"My concern continues to be the overall funding that can get us where we want to get," said RDA member Bill Joiner.

Board member Harley Snyder said a regional bus system is still the RDA's goal, in large part because it will serve as an economic development tool connecting people to jobs.

======================================================

Hammond bus service won't end in June

By Susan Brown
susan.brown@nwi.com,

(219) 836-3780 | Thursday, March 12, 2009

HAMMOND | On the heels of the resignation of Regional Bus Authority President Dennis Rittenmeyer, Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. on Thursday announced bus service won't end in Hammond in June.

McDermott's remarks, made at a Mayor's Commission on Disabilities breakfast, were confirmed by the commission's president, Ruth Tall.

"It's wonderful," Tall said, adding the breakfast was attended by at least 400 guests. "Of course, they were very happy."

McDermott could not be reached for immediate comment, but Hammond Transit Director Keith Matasovsky said talks about not shutting down the service have been in process for about a month. Some included the RBA, he said.

"The mayor wants to continue the service after June 30, but there really haven't been any formal plans laid as to how that's going to happen," he said.

The city's bus service had been written out of this year's city budget and is currently supported by $400,000 in gaming dollars from both the mayor and the City Council.

At the time of the agreement worked out by McDermott and the council, it was contended that the six-month timeframe until service ended in June was designed to allow the state to act to fund regional transit.

This week, with the funding controversy mounting, Rittenmeyer announced he will step down from the RBA by June 1. Legislation regarding the oversight of regional bus and commuter rail remains pending in the Indiana House.

======================================================

Rittenmeyer to quit as RBA chairman
 

March 12, 2009

By Erik Potter Post-Tribune staff writer

Regional Bus Authority President Dennis Rittenmeyer is resigning his position no later than June 1.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Rittenmeyer informed the Lake County Council of his resignation.

Rittenmeyer is the first and only president of the bus authority and before that he was president of the Regional Transit Authority.

Since its inception two years ago, the RBA has been frustrated in trying to find a permanent local county funding source to support itself and regional transportation.

Rittenmeyer's letter did not explicitly state a reason for his resignation, saying only that the RBA is about to go through a transition period and "I can see no value in continuing my services beyond June 1."

Rittenmeyer did not immediately return calls asking for comment.

Tim Brown, executive director of the RBA, said he was aware that Rittenmeyer had been thinking about stepping down for about a month.

"I didn't pry into all of those circumstances he had behind resigning. He did indicate it was in his best interest," Brown said.

Rittenmeyer has talked in increasingly dire tones this year about the necessity of a food and beverage tax to keep the RBA afloat and to fix the region's patchwork of public transportation systems.

Lake County Councilman Tom O'Donnell, D-Dyer, who also sits on the RBA, sponsored the food and beverage tax this winter, but it never gained traction. The measure has since been left for dead.

"I think that rigor mortis has set in, in my opinion. I just think (the tax) is dead," O'Donnell said. "I think (Rittenmeyer) feels like he failed. I don't think that he did. He worked tirelessly and (the RBA) was almost doomed to failure because of the lack of permanent funding."

State Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, who has been a critic of the RBA's financial decisions and its leadership structure, said perhaps Rittenmeyer stepping down is a sign the organization will become more professional.

"The old Lake County way of doing things, 'Just give me the money and I'll handle it,' isn't going to fly anymore, not down here," Dobis said from Indianapolis.

"The Little Cal commission needed changing, and we're doing that. Maybe that shows us the way forward."

Staff writer John Byrne contributed to this report.

Contact Erik Potter at 648-3120, or epotter@post-trib.com.

======================================================

RBA president to step down

By Keith Benman
keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326
| Thursday, March 12, 2009

Regional Bus Authority President Dennis Rittenmeyer has given notice he will resign his position by June 1 in the face of mounting controversy regarding the funding of regional bus service.

In a letter of resignation to Lake County Council President Larry Blanchard, Rittenmeyer wrote that there are only two opportunities to fund local bus service to keep it from collapsing. Those are the food and beverage tax or a local income tax, Rittenmeyer stated.

"Either an answer to the 'local' funding question will be found soon and the future of public transportation will be made secure, which has been my goal; or an answer to the 'local' funding question will not be found and the Regional Bus Authority will end its activities Dec. 31, 2009," Rittenmeyer wrote in his letter.

The RBA is currently funded with grants from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, but those run out at the end of this year.

Rittenmeyer has been president of the RBA and its predecessor organization, the Regional Transportation Authority, since 2001. He serves in the post as a volunteer and is not paid. His full-time job is serving as president of Calumet College of St. Joseph.

RBA Executive Director Tim Brown said the agency will continue to function during the transition from Rittenmeyer to a new president.

Legislation is pending in the Indiana House to authorize the formation of regional transportation authorities to oversee bus and commuter rail, but how that would affect Northwest Indiana is unclear.

The RBA is hoping to rescue region bus service with the help of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

The region's dominant dial-a-ride bus service for the handicapped and others folded in January, and officials have said Hammond Transit will run out of funds by the end of June.

RDA Chairman Leigh Morris said he hopes Rittenmeyer's resignation doesn't diminish the drive to get a regional bus service up and running.

Rittenmeyer and the RBA have been under fire from some quarters for much of the past year.

The Lake County Convention and Visitors Authority has fought the RBA's quest to use a food and beverage tax to fund bus service, saying any such tax should be directed to boosting tourism.

In January, Rittenmeyer and Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Speros Batistatos faced off in a debate on the issue before the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.

Batistatos charged there was impropriety at the RBA and questioned everything from statistics on bus ridership in Northwest Indiana to the integrity of the RBA.

After learning of Rittenmeyer's planned resignation Wednesday, Batistatos said the authority "remains absolutely committed to opposing unfair taxation of our industry."

In October, state Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, demanded an audit of the RBA, which gave the agency's books a clean bill of health. An attached letter from the auditor made several recommendations for tightening up its management and control of funds.

======================================================

Get Porter County out of RDA, spend it elsewhere

Thursday, March 12, 2009

When I ran for commissioner against John Evans, I was of the opinion that the Porter County taxpayers wanted out of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. Now state Rep. Chet Dobis is trying to pass a law to keep us in the RDA for 10 years.

When I talked to Dan Whitten, Laura Blaney and Sylvia Graham, they were also against it. Bob Harper stated in a July meeting of the Democratic Party that he also was not in favor of the RDA.

Now our governor wants smaller government. The RDA is just the opposite. We now have a director whose salary is $70,000 to $130,000 a year. The RDA is a dead end subsidy; we will never get out of. A train that is not needed and talk of adding stimulus money and RDA funds for trails.

Porter County taxpayers should contact Whitten, Graham, Blaney, Harper, Carole Knoblock and Bob Poparad and tell them to get out of the RDA while we still can. We do not need to support the special interests of this group at the expense of Porter County taxpayers. Put the $3.5 million back in the Porter County budget, for our needs such as fixing drainage problems and road repair.

- John Rittel, Valparaiso

======================================================

Rittenmeyer to leave RBA
March 11, 2009

In a letter dated Tuesday, Regional Bus Authority President Dennis Rittenmeyer told the Lake County Council that he will resign from the RBA no later than June 1.

Rittenmeyer has been the first and only president of the bus authority, and before that the Regional Transit Authority. The group has been frustrated in recent years in trying to pass a local county tax to support regional transportation.

Rittenmeyer does not explicitly state a reason for his resignation, saying only that the RBA is about to go through a transition period and, "I can see no value in continuing my services beyond June 1."

======================================================

County told to think long-term with RDA

BY BOB KASARDA
bkasarda@nwitimes.com
219.548.4345 | Friday, February 27, 2009

VALPARAISO | The recently completed lakefront and riverwalk project in Portage is a very visible example of the potential benefits of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

But the way RDA board member Harley Snyder sees it, someone could not leave the region today and return in just a couple of years to judge the success of the RDA.

It likely will take 15 or 20 years before the impact of the assorted projects funded across the region by the RDA begin to take shape, he said.

"Time cures all things," he said.

Snyder delivered his message of patience Thursday as part of an educational workshop hosted by himself and fellow Porter County representative on the RDA board Gus Olympidis.

Among the entities represented at the meeting were the County Council and commissioners, the communities of Valparaiso, Portage and Burns Harbor, and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which operates the South Shore Line.

The workshop was held in the wake of grumblings of Porter County pulling out of the RDA because of disappointment over the payback for its annual $3.5 million contribution.

The group of local officials was steered Thursday to consider tapping RDA funds with projects that fall under the heading of shoreline redevelopment, which is one of four RDA goals along with the Gary/Chicago International Airport, the South Shore Line and regional bus service.

RDA consultant Tina Rongers encouraged the group to be creative and to think beyond just public access projects.

Potential projects include improving aging sewer systems that contribute to lake pollution and thus hurt the recreational value of the lakefront, she said. Trail development, particularly those that contribute to a regional network, also should be considered, she said, along with the redevelopment of former industrial land near the lake.

The local government leaders were encouraged to discuss their proposals with the executive director of the RDA before filing an application and were given tips on how to boost the chances of their applications succeeding.

Considering the emphasis placed Thursday on shoreline projects, Porter County Council member Sylvia Graham asked whether the county was limited to that type of funding.

Snyder said no and argued the county will benefit from improvements in regional bus service and to South Shore Line and Gary/Chicago International Airport.

"Porter County can benefit and will benefit from the entire four goals and objectives of the RDA," Snyder said.

======================================================

Transport solutions add zip to region

BY KEITH BENMAN
kbenman@nwitimes.com
219.933.3326 | Friday, February 27, 2009

New ways of solving age-old transportation problems in Northwest Indiana continue to gain traction.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, formed just three years ago, has now put more than $43 million into area transportation projects ranging from airport expansion to new cars for South Shore commuter rail.

"It would have been very, very difficult for any individual unit of government to have accomplished any of these things and to address the significant problems we've had with transportation in Northwest Indiana," said RDA Chairman Leigh Morris.

The two-county RDA was formed under state legislation passed in 2005 to undertake four main missions. Those are the extension of the South Shore commuter rail line; expansion of Gary/Chicago International Airport; establishment of a regional bus service; and support of the Marquette Plan for lakefront development.

The RDA already has granted the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District $17.5 million for acquiring 14 new rail cars for the South Shore Line.

"It would have been extremely difficult if not impossible for to acquire those cars without the RDA's assistance," said John Parsons, NICTD marketing and planning director.

The RDA has also granted the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority $8.8 million for pilot projects such as a regional call center and regional bus routes. The Gary airport has been given $20 million for projects that are clearing the way for its runway expansion.

The RDA is funded by casino money, a local income tax and proceeds from the state's 99-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road.

The RDA is now addressing key issues that, once resolved, will allow it to be the "transformational force" that the General Assembly and Gov. Mitch Daniels envisioned three years ago, Morris said.

On the South Shore expansion front, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District is nearing completion of a $3 million feasibility study of the 36-mile South Shore extension. That study will be submitted to the Federal Transportation Administration as part of an application for funds for preliminary engineering.

The RDA plans to invest in the extension, perhaps paying up to $150 million of its $1 billion price tag.

And some region transportation problems are being solved the old-fashioned way.

The interchange at Interstate 65 and the Borman Expressway (Interstate 90/94) is being completely rebuilt to handle the massive traffic flows into and out of Chicago.

The second phase of the $187 million Indiana Department of Transportation project was completed in December 2008. New bridges now arch over the Borman to carry traffic north and south on I-65. New ramps built to modern safety standards now allow for speedy exiting and entering of the Borman.

A third phase of the project will wrap up in 2010.

"The way to think about it is our state motto is 'The Crossroads of America,'" said INDOT spokesman Joshua Bingham. "And that's proven any day of the week if you go out on the Borman or I-65."

INDOT studies showed population growth in the region as well as increasing traffic volume on both roadways justified spending on the project, Bingham said.

Roadways throughout the region also continue to get a boost from Gov. Mitch Daniels' Major Moves highway construction program. Indiana is one of the few states in the nation to have a fully-funded 10-year highway construction program thanks to the $3.8 billion Indiana Toll Road lease completed in 2006.

Daniels' plan is to capitalize on Indiana's strategic location to make it a global leader in the distribution and logistics industry and thereby create jobs, Bingham said.

"The governor's plan was with the leasing of the Toll Road all the money would go to those projects that were wanted and needed in each region for many, many years," Bingham said.

Roadways and interchanges benefitting from Major Moves locally include I-65, which will have a new interchange built at 109th Street in Crown Point, and U.S. 6, which is being widened to four lanes in Lake and Porter counties.

The region also continued to take a look at pulling itself up by its bootstraps when it comes to projects like extending the South Shore commuter rail and creating a regional public bus system.

"The RDA has really played much more of a role over the last eight months in focusing on rail and bus together," Parsons said. "Under Leigh Morris, they are really playing a leadership role."

Options on the table for funding the South Shore extension and a regional bus system are a local food and beverage tax or a wheel tax on vehicles.

A food and beverage tax would have to be implemented by the Lake County Council and then distributed by the RDA, under state legislation enacted three years ago. A wheel tax would require the passage of new legislation in the Indiana General Assembly.

The Regional Bus Authority will be wrapping up several pilot projects this year, including express commuter buses to Chicago and regional bus routes between cities and towns. Regional bus service, however, did suffer a setback this year when the dial-a-ride bus system of Northwest Indiana Community Action folded for lack of funding. And Hammond Transit, the city's fixed-route bus service may fold if outside funding cannot be found.

======================================================

RBA needs to pull its head out of the sand

BY TERESA TORRES
Executive Director, Everybody Counts
| Sunday, February 22, 2009

In a recent guest commentary, Lake County Councilman Tom O'Donnell said he introduced the food and beverage tax before the Lake County Council for the purpose of starting a conversation.

That would be terrific, albeit untimely, if it were true. Yet in fact, his proposal to the council at its pre-meeting workshop included a specific request that they allow only representatives from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and the Regional Bus Authority to speak, and bar anyone else from commenting at all.

When asked why he felt it necessary to prevent anyone else from sharing their thoughts on the matter, O'Donnell said that otherwise it would just become vitriolic and nonproductive.

While it is true that many opponents of the RBA's proposal to create a new tax are angry, and many of the real stakeholders who've been used as hostages in a dangerous game are resentful, it is only those who fear the truth who are afraid of open dialog. And the truth is, the RBA has failed to take the steps necessary to build an effective, efficient regional transit system.

Without question, Northwest Indiana would benefit from such a system as much as or perhaps even more than other communities which have learned to work together to make it possible. But to quote RBA Executive Director Tim Brown, all they're interested in right now is "preserving the lousy system we have."

Here's another truth: we don't need new money to support an old way of doing business, we need to determine what has been wrong and wasteful then bring the community together to explore new and creative ways to develop a system that meets the real needs.

The RBA has spent an exorbitant amount of money on consultants. But they've also acknowledged that if all the money in the world fell into their laps tomorrow, they would not be equipped to implement a specific plan, because they don't really have one.

Everyone who shouts, "Let them take a cab!" should consider the recent college graduate and power wheelchair user from Hammond, who would now have to pay $180 for a round trip to Merrillville by means of the only private lift-equipped vehicle available for nonmedical trips.

And everyone with an opinion one way or another about the RBA should attend at least one of its sad but entertaining meetings, which are open to the public, to decide for themselves if this is the vehicle through which an efficient, cost-effective solution can be achieved.

After nearly a decade of existence, they have developed no plan, they have achieved no accountability, and they have garnered no community support. Last month alone, they spent almost $400,000 on salaries, consultants, cell phones, accountants, mileage, purchase of huge vehicles that nobody's riding and payments to a dispatch and call center that hasn't yet benefited one single rider.

The RBA would know that if they ever actually talked to any of those riders, or if they were open to more than a three-minute window of public comment at their meetings.

But then, that would open them up to questions like how it is that Northwest Indiana Community Action was allowed to take 23 vehicles purchased, operated and maintained 100 percent by tax dollars that were earmarked for public transportation, then only use them 20 percent of the time for actual public rides.

The other 80 percent went to trips for which they were able to generate agency revenue by third party billing to Medicaid and local governmental agencies. This is unfortunately nothing new -- TradeWinds did the same thing and other agencies are doing it right now. It's far more profitable to bill down $100 a trip than the $2.50 you can get from a regular rider.

But that ride to the doctor's office shouldn't cost taxpayers any more than a ride to the grocery store. It's the same vehicle, the same driver and the same gas. This might be a topic the RBA should explore as they talk about how much money it's going to take to create a viable system.

You can't lead if you don't pull your head out of the sand. Teresa Torres is executive director of Everybody Counts. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.
 

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Time to build consensus about public transit

BY TOM O'DONNELL
Lake County Councilman
| Sunday, February 15, 2009

At last month's meeting of the Lake County Council, I introduced the food and beverage tax for the purpose of starting a conversation about a needed local source of revenue for bus transit.

I believe it has been helpful, although not all of it has been positive.

Some have told me I will lose votes. That is their choice. For me, my support for bus transportation has always been a matter of social justice.

There are people who depend upon public transit, and we need to find a solution to sustain that service.

But I also believe better bus service will help with economic development. For example, it will get people to jobs as well as medical services and shopping in south county. The food and beverage tax is the best option of the alternatives available to us. All others point primarily to property tax relief. But if this discussion leads to other funding possibilities, then that is a positive step forward.

After all, the Indiana General Assembly is under way in Indianapolis.

Perhaps we will learn of other funding possibilities that might result from this session. Regardless, we will still need a local funding source.

Immediately, we need to deal with the busing crisis. The Northwest Indiana Community Action Corporation has ended bus service. This has impacted more than 4,000 primarily low-income and elderly people in urban and outlying areas. Hammond also wants to get out of the busing business. Not only will the lives of people be affected, but the millions of federal and state dollars we receive for these services will go to other regions that already have a consensus about the importance of transit to their quality of life.

Also, we need to get on with consolidating our fixed route services. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority has made it clear to the Regional Bus Authority that fixed-route services in our northern communities must operate under a universal service. So it is no longer business as usual.

One of the key ingredients in transit planning is that we need to do a better job of linking bus with rail services. I was pleased by the action taken when the RBA expanded regional routes in partnership with the Gary Public Transportation Corp. When GPTC launched this service, it coordinated schedules with South Shore rail service. That's a positive step.

I would love to see the South Shore expand to Lowell and Valparaiso. Think of the economic impact that expansion would have on our communities! We only have to look to the extensive rail services available in Chicago suburbs and appreciate the huge impact that rail has on economic development.

So it is time to stop bickering and develop a "smart" strategy that builds upon a consensus to expand bus and rail service for our county and region.

Saving busing is not only a matter of social justice. It is also one of the building blocks of a comprehensive and reliable service that links bus and rail together for the good of all residents of Northwest Indiana. Thomas C. O'Donnell is a Member of the Lake County Council and a member of the Regional Bus Authority. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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EDITORIAL: Give us a plan before a new tax

nwitimes.com

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Thursday's debate over the Regional Bus Authority's plea for a 1 percent food and beverage sales tax made it clear the RBA does not yet have a solid plan for a regional bus service.

What the region needs is a single bus system covering the entire region, encompassing both fixed-route and on-demand service. And this bus system needs real accountability and professional oversight.

But at Thursday's debate, when South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Speros Batistatos repeatedly said the RBA has no plan, RBA Chairman Dennis Rittenmeyer was unable to refute it.

On Monday, buses formerly used by Northwest Indiana Community Action were returned to the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. Those riders, abandoned after their demand-response service ended Friday, need to be included in the RBA's plan.

We must not settle for a rescue of the existing Gary, Hammond and East Chicago fixed-route systems. Batistatos is right on this point. If the tax is limited to operating bus lines for these three communities, that's simply a bailout and not a boon to all of Lake County. Why should all of Lake County pay for something without sharing in the benefit?

Before the Lake County Council approves a new tax, many questions need to be answered, including:

* What is the plan for the RBA to provide bus service? We expect details for routes, equipment and staffing. So far there is no solid plan available. Just some suggestions from consultants.

* What is the cost to launch a new regional bus service? What will the annual operating cost be? What are the equipment and maintenance details and costs?

* Where will the money come from? Just a food and beverage tax? That's a lot of food for an operation that could cost $14 million to $30 million a year.

* What provision has been made for long-range development of a regionwide bus system? How? When? How much?

* Who will serve on the RBA board? Some of the existing board members represent bus service providers. Does this pose conflicts? Does this board representation need to be changed to make it more professional?

* What about the RBA audit suggestion of the potential for fraud and other exposure to financial losses? What changes have been made as a result?

* How will the on-demand service work differently and better than the prior service?

* Will this bus service serve outlying communities like Lowell, Crown Point, Winfield and Hobart? If so, how? If not, why not?

* How many passengers in recent years have used the buses? We want the number of individuals riding the buses, not just the total number of rides.

* Will the RBA buses link to the Chicago area bus system? Link to South Shore train stations?

* What shape is the equipment of the three cities in now? Gary's bus service costs twice as much per mile as Hammond's service, partly because of poor equipment. What will it cost to make the entire fleet and other equipment meet minimum standards? Who gets paid for the existing gear? And who determines how much?

There are other questions, to be sure, but these are a starting point.

The RBA needs to provide answers before the Lake County Council provides any new funding. Your opinion, please
What should the Regional Bus Authority be focused on now?

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