road construction stock photo

PORTAGE — The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission's Executive Board gave final approval Thursday to the addition of 136 road maintenance projects to its four-year Transportation Improvement Program. The additions were made as part of an infrastructure funding package enacted by state government this year.

The projects, ranging from pipe-lining to drainage improvements to pavement rehabilitation, are "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of new projects that are part of the state's Next Level roads program, NIRPC Transportation Projects Manager Gary Evers said.

Actions by the Indiana General Assembly and Gov. Eric Holcomb created a 20-year funding package for infrastructure that included an increase in gas taxes and other fees.

Thursday's NIRPC board action came a day after the Indiana Department of Transportation announced this year's Community Crossings grants for municipalities and counties. Local governments around the state applied for almost twice the $150 million available, said state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, a NIRPC executive board member.

Rick Powers, deputy commissioner of INDOT's LaPorte district, noted the program attracted far more interest this year than in 2016, the progam's first year. All communities with qualifying applications received grants last year, many the maximum of $1 million. That was not the case this year.

Bus funding debated

Thursday's meeting also included a short discussion of Gary Public Transportation Corp.'s Lakeshore South bus service, which runs in portions of Hammond, Highland and Munster. The service faces suspension in December without local funding to match available federal funds.

NIRPC Executive Director Ty Warner said the agency will host a meeting of representatives of potential funding sources, and GPTC Marketing Director David Wright renewed his request for a partnership with local governments in the communities the route runs through, similar to the arrangement helping fund the pending Broadway Metro Express service from Gary through Merrillville. GPTC would need $73,000 annually to continue the Lakeshore route.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. renewed the argument that bus service should be financed regionally.

"I believe philosophically it's a regional problem," he said. "It's not a Hammond problem; it's not a Gary problem."

As funding discussions continue, Wright said GPTC is planning a meeting to inform riders of the potential for suspension of the service.

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Transportation reporter

Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.