PORTAGE | Discussions among area transit agencies are turning from how to save the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority to how to help people with disabilities who will be stranded when its easygo Lake Transit service closes June 30.
Half a dozen transit providers at a meeting Tuesday said they would like to expand their paratransit and possibly on-demand services to help out, but they are running into the same lack-of-funding roadblock that has haunted region transit for decades.
"As long as resources would be provided to us, we are anxious to undertake the service," said Clay Cates, director of procurement and grants for Gary Public Transportation Corp.
Gary Public Transportation Corp. will take up some of the slack by fulfilling federal mandates that require it to provide paratransit rides within three-fourths of a mile from its Tri City Connection, which runs through parts of Hammond, Cates said. But it will need more funding to expand service beyond that.
East Chicago Transit General Manager Sandy Martinez said her agency is in the same position.
In all, East Chicago Transit and GPTC will end up serving about 130 to 150 people who currently use paratransit services contracted out by the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority, RBA Director Tim Brown said.
The remainder of the approximately 570 riders in the Hammond area will have to find some other way to get to the doctor, physical therapy, shopping and other places.
The easygo Lake Transit paratransit services are currently provided under contract by Triple A Express, of Highland. Owner-operator Chip Whitney said he will sell his three wheelchair vans when his contract runs out at the end of the month.
Tuesday's meeting was called by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and took place at its Portage headquarters. NIRPC Executive Director John Swanson said the purpose of the meeting was to gather input on how some level of bus service could continue to be provided for easygo Lake Transit riders.
"This is not an attempt to stop the clock," Swanson said to begin the meeting. "We expect the RBA to cease bus operations on June 30."
The RBA has subsisted for two years on multimillion-dollar subsidies from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, which have now run out. Those subsidies allowed the RBA to take over and expand the former Hammond Transit system.
There has been some talk of changing the route of GPTC's Tri City Connection to cover more streets in Hammond. East Chicago Transit also has a bus route that runs through parts of Hammond. But changing either route would take at least several months.
Demand-response bus providers at Tuesday's meeting also expressed an interest in expanding their services, which could fill a small portion of the gap left by the shutdown of easygo Lake Transit, particularly for the elderly.
Dial-a-ride bus services provided 111,536 rides in Lake and Porter counties last year, according to RBA figures.