GPTC emerges as regional leader in bus tussle

2012-07-02T19:30:00Z 2012-07-03T12:51:05Z GPTC emerges as regional leader in bus tussleBy Keith Benman, (219) 933-3326

GARY | Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and other local officials on Monday began to lay out a road map for Gary Public Transportation Corp. to expand regional transit in Northwest Indiana.

The mayor was backed by Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority Executive Director Bill Hanna at a hastily called City Hall news conference, where Hanna seconded the mayor's comments and appeared to bury the hatchet with GPTC.

"As the mayor said, 'It is a new day,'" Hanna said. "There is new leadership in place, which is a game-changer."

Hanna's and the mayor's comments came less than 48 hours after the last easygo Lake Transit buses rolled in Hammond, ending Northwest Indiana's first, ill-fated experiment with regional transit. The shutdown stranded thousands of bus riders and people with disabilities who use paratransit vans.

The RDA will have an emergency meeting Tuesday to vote on appropriating $100,000 to help fund paratransit services in the former easygo Lake Transit territory. That money is expected to secure about $400,000 in federal funds for the same paratransit services.

But officials on Monday made it plain they consider the continuation of paratransit services within the former easygo Lake Transit territory just the first step in re-establishing regularly scheduled, fixed-route bus service in Hammond and nearby communities.

Freeman-Wilson said the current plan for paratransit was developed with the cooperation of Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland. The mayors also will be partners in any expansion of services moving forward, she said.

GPTC General Manager Daryl Lampkins said his agency already has developed a draft proposal for how to re-establish some Hammond bus service, which has been discussed with the RDA and other agencies.

"We weren't sitting back to see what would happen," Lampkins said. "We recognize, as a unit, that fixed-route services in certain areas in some form will have to be extended or recreated."

No set date was offered for the possible re-establishment of regularly scheduled, fixed-route service in Hammond.

The recognition of GPTC as the possible solution to Northwest Indiana's transit woes comes almost two years after the agency's board of directors and the RDA engaged in a bitter face-off. In summer 2010, the RDA wanted GPTC to sign a memorandum of understanding committing it to consolidation with the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority.

After months of negotiations and reworking the wording of the proposed memorandum, the GPTC board voted to reject the consolidation.

Earlier that year, the RBA took over the former Hammond Transit bus system. During the summer, it greatly expanded the system with the help of a $4.8 million grant from the RDA. GPTC in the spring had put in a bid to operate the easygo buses for the RBA, but the RBA instead selected a private provider, First Transit, to do that.

On Monday, the RBA was barely mentioned. In answer to a reporter's question, Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission Executive Director John Swanson said the RBA still exists as an entity under state law but no longer operates as a provider of transit services.

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