The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority on Tuesday approved a $4.8 million grant to more than double bus service provided by the former Hammond Transit system, including a third regional route to the Lake County Government Complex in Crown Point.
The RDA grant will lead to the largest expansion of regional bus service in decades in Lake County, and it also includes money for improvements to Porter County bus service.
"This is good for the region," Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. told RDA board members Tuesday as the plan was laid before them at the Lost Marsh Clubhouse. "We need to start thinking outside our own political boundaries."
The former Hammond Transit system has been operated by the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority since January and now is running under the EasyGo moniker.
The RDA last year approved a grant for $1 million to keep Hammond's local routes running under RBA management for two years. In addition, Hammond has appropriated $1.8 million to help subsidize the system.
Farebox collections, along with state and federal subsidies, will contribute more than $3.2 million in support to the new, expanded system, according to RBA figures passed out Tuesday.
RDA board member Harley Snyder asked RBA Executive Director Tim Brown what provision the bus service has made for funding the system beyond December 2011, when the RDA plans to cut off its operational support. It may still support capital improvements such as new buses or equipment after that time.
"If this is successful and it works and we see more transit on the road, I hope we can prove to local legislators that it needs to be maintained and operating," Brown said.
The RBA long has pushed for a higher local sales tax on restaurant and bar tabs or some other means of support for local bus service.
The RBA has requested proposals for operating the new, expanded system and already has interviewed four vendors. RDA Program Director Ken Dallmeyer confirmed those include First Transit, the current contractor providing the Hammond Service, as well as Gary Public Transportation Corp., the operator of Gary's bus system.
The expansion plans shown to the RDA on Tuesday were arrived at after seven public input meetings and months of study, Brown said.
In response to public comment, stops at Horseshoe Casino and the Hammond Amtrak station were added, Brown said. In addition to the Hammond-to-Crown Point route, another regional route will operate from the South Side of Chicago to Main Street in Munster, and another from the South Side to Highland.
Hammond routes will have service hours expanded to 14 hours per day, as well as Saturdays, Brown said.
Paratransit services for the handicapped will operate within three-quarter miles of all regular bus routes, he said.
Projects benefitting Porter County include a new consolidated demand-response bus service dispatch center, installation of new high-tech fareboxes, and new federal grants for demand-response services operated by Porter County Aging and Community Services.