The issue between Everybody Counts and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Authority is simple. NIRPC isn't complying with the terms of an agreement they signed in federal court, after a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of people with disabilities throughout Lake County.
We are a small community organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, which are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress nearly 25 years ago.
For many of those individuals, access to adequate public transit services is more than a convenience. It can literally mean the difference between life and death. NIRPC has failed them miserably, but in fact they are failing the entire community.
NIRPC’s budget is around $800 million. In determining funding priorities, it has legal and moral obligations to actively engage local residents. Instead, decisions made behind closed doors can have rippling effects that impact the entire community.
A recent, particularly outrageous example significantly impacted residents of Hammond and other north county communities.
Based on the numbers of people who had used their services, the now-defunct Regional Bus Authority had earned more than a half a million dollars for each of the next two years, through the state’s Public Mass Transit Funding program. After the RBA’s demise, the Indiana Department of Transportation gave NIRPC the authority to disseminate those funds ($506,267 in 2013, 562,701 in 2014).
Remember, those dollars had been earned because of Hammond riders. So did NIRPC award those resources to the North Township Trustee’s office to bolster its Dial-A-Ride service, the only remaining option for the transit-dependent Hammond? Or maybe to East Chicago Transit and/or Gary Public Transportation, the only other Lake County fixed route providers, so they could help meet the need?
No, NIRPC awarded those funds to agencies in Porter County, and one serving only south Lake County residents. They have not disclosed just how much went to which, but we do know zero went to anyone who provides public transit services in those communities in north Lake County.
Why would NIRPC’s commissioners, who are responsible for that agency’s decisions, approve of such a thing? Simple. It doesn’t appear that they even knew it was happening. Decisions like this are largely left to the staff.
This decision was not brought to the Transportation Policy Committee. It was not brought to the Finance and Personnel Committee. In fact, there isn’t a single bit of evidence that there was any discussion before NIRPC staff altered the 2013 budget and presented it to the NIRPC commissioners.
Once this matter was brought to INDOT's attention, NIRPC was directed to divide the 2014 RBA allocations between East Chicago Transit and the GPTC. The latter has combined those funds with other resources to expand its fixed routes and paratransit services in Hammond.
Could that have happened a year ago? Absolutely.
NIRPC’s lack of transparency is common knowledge, even among \elected officials who serve as its commissioners. But most are afraid to rock the boat for fear that funds to their community might be impacted.
Intimidation is a common tactic used by those afraid of the truth. Just ask those senior citizens who found themselves being stared down, two to one, by armed police officers for having the audacity to ask a few questions at a recent NIRPC meeting. But neither that, nor a barrage of double-talk and insults can change the facts.
As noted in Times editorials, public transportation is important to an ever-growing number of local residents. If NIRPC’s business was conducted openly, it would have to follow the rules – and the law – and an effective regional system might be an achievable goal.
By arrogantly dismissing those most in need – as well as their own commissioners,
NIRPC is letting all of Northwest Indiana down. And that is why we’re taking them back to court.