The Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority on Monday overwhelmingly approved a memorandum of understanding that is designed to provide a pathway to merger with Gary Public Transportation Corp.
The step, taken by a board vote of 17-0 with one abstention, was a milestone for the agency in that it commits it to merge with the largest bus transit provider in the region.
However, Monday's vote at the RBA's regular meeting at Methodist Hospital Southlake still left many questions unanswered. Those include whether the GPTC board of directors will take the same step and how the merged service would be funded beyond 2011.
The memorandum of understanding was first proposed by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, in response to GPTC's request for $4.1 million in RDA funds. The RDA has since told GPTC that it must sign the memorandum before it will grant any part of the request.
"We are No. 1 concerned about riders that are in need of basic bus service in Northwest Indiana," RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna told the RBA board shortly before the vote.
Hanna also clarified that if GPTC does merge with the RBA, taxes paid by Gary taxpayers to the city's bus agency only will be used for bus services provided within city limits.
The GPTC board of directors has not yet signed off on the memorandum, despite the fact the RDA earlier told the agency it must do so if it wants any of the funds it has applied for.
Also remaining as an open question is how the new merged regional bus service will be funded after 2011, when the RDA says it will cut off all funding for regional bus operations. The authority will continue to fund capital projects and purchases such as new buses.
In a related action that also could affect regional bus service, the RBA board acted Monday on GPTC's appeal of how contracts were awarded for operating the expanded Hammond Transit bus service.
That contract was awarded to First Transit Inc. in May. GPTC failed to win the contract, despite submitting a bid with a lower price tag.
The RBA board on Monday voted 12-1 with four abstentions to deny GPTC's appeal.
RBA officials have said once the bids were adjusted to make up for certain advantages enjoyed by GPTC as a public bus agency, the First Transit bid was actually superior from a price standpoint.
That viewpoint was sharply challenged by Clay Cates, GPTC procurement manager, at Monday's RBA meeting. He presented the RBA with a four-point rebuttal of its claims, claiming the RBA had neutralized the GPTC bid's key strengths while taking full account of those of the other bidders.
"It's our opinion the decision was made on the basis of something other than what was in the solicitation package," Cates said.
GPTC General Manager Daryl Lampkins said last week his board of directors had authorized him to take his case to the the Federal Transit Administration if the RBA rejected the appeal.