NWI transit woes due to lack of funding

2012-10-21T00:00:00Z 2012-10-21T22:41:05Z NWI transit woes due to lack of fundingBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

Both are young up-and-comers. Both already have experience in mass transit beyond their years. And both were recently named to Mass Transit magazine's "Top 40 Under 40" list, which honors young professionals making significant contributions to the industry.

Tom Phillips, 35, and Jared Forte, 38, also have something else in common. They both got their start in the industry in Northwest Indiana. And they say it's not difficult to figure out why the wheels came off the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority's easygo Lake Transit bus service in June.

"Having a local source of funding is absolutely paramount to operating a local transit system," Phillips said. "You simply cannot operate without it."

When funding from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority dried up and no local government stepped forward with support, it was obvious the project was doomed, Phillips said.

Forte said the biggest problem facing Northwest Indiana mass transit today is the same as it was in 2007, when he left his job at Gary Public Transportation Corp. for bigger challenges.

"It's the same issue they have now," Forte said. "It's the lack of local funding."

But having said that, both can point to what they feel were strategic missteps in building the case for regional transit in Northwest Indiana. That in turn led to the stiff-arm elected officials gave any notion of implementing a tax to pay for it.

Both realize they have the advantage of hindsight now that the easygo effort has crashed. And they expressed confidence and admiration for many region transit leaders. But they agreed to offer their observations to The Times in hopes of providing positive voices for regional transit's revival.

Forte remembers the optimism in local mass transit when the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority was formed in 2005 with a specific mandate to improve, expand and regionalize bus and train service.

That optimism grew in 2007 when plans were laid to improve GPTC regional routes with cash infusions from the RDA.

Forte had already moved onto his current job as assistant general manager of Lextran, the mass transit agency for Lexington, Ky., when those improvements took place. But in 2010 the RDA funding was not renewed when the GPTC board voted down any merger with the RBA.

Also in 2010, the RBA took over Hammond Transit and renamed it easygo Lake Transit. Bus and paratransit ridership there built steadily as service was expanded.

"It was a rousing success," Phillips said. "They doubled ridership. But what I didn't get a notion of is what was the next step. After Hammond, what was next?"

In fact, Phillips feels the RBA may have veered off course by becoming an actual operator of mass transit. He had understood the original vision for the agency was that it would be an instigator of regionalization and an overseer for consolidation.

To that end, the RBA should have demonstrated it could do things local bus agencies could not do on their own, Phillips said. That would include acting as advocate for funding. It would also include undertaking concrete projects like the "One Stop" regional call center it attempted to create, but which never fulfilled its promise.

Helping local bus agencies to enter into ridership deals with local colleges would have also built credibility, Phillips said. Local employers, senior centers and others should also have been encouraged to get in on the action.

"The majority of taxpaying residents don't ride the buses," Phillips said. "But they would have seen people using the buses to get to and from work, to and from school, to and from the senior centers. Those are the kind of stories I would want to hear as an elected county official if I was being asked to support mass transit."

Both Phillips and Forte said rather than getting into a tussle with GPTC's board of directors over signing a merger document, the RBA might have been better off using some of the Gary bus agency's resources. In particular, both pointed to the GPTC bus maintenance and storage facility on West 35th Avenue.

Because of improvements made with federal funds some years ago, the facility is up to date and has capacity to handle all buses on the road in Lake County.

It would be easy to see how such a simple step could lead to greater cooperation on routes and services, Phillips said.

Both Phillips and Forte said they believe a consolidated regional mass transit system remains in Northwest Indiana's future.

There is no reason Northwest Indiana transit can't function like the much larger system in the Chicago area, where the Regional Transportation Authority oversees Chicago Transit Authority buses, PACE suburban buses and Metra trains, Forte said.

"I think ultimately consolidation is the way to go," Forte said. "And if you look at GPTC, they have the bus assets you would need."

Phillips said he still believes in the vision of a consolidated mass transit system that has been laid out by leaders in the movement like former RBA Chairman Dennis Rittenmeyer.

"The question is not: 'Do people in Northwest Indiana need a high-quality transit system?'" Phillips said. "The question is: 'What should that system look like?'"

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