Improved bus service on minds of disabled, others
By Michael Gonzalez Post-Tribune correspondent April 4, 2014 9:20PM
A Gary Public Transit Corp. bus bound for Broadway waits for passengers Aug. 14 at the Adam Benjamin Metro Center. | Post-Tribune photo
Updated: May 8, 2014 9:28AM
GARY — All of the talk about the recently green-lighted South Shore extension has overlooked people like Darrell Robinson, people with disabilities who need a vibrant, extensive local mass transit system, the Merrillville man said recently.
A mental health counselor at the Lake County Jail, Robinson said he relies on rides from co-workers to get to his job, help from others to go anywhere else or the Gary Public Transportation Corp.’s limited paratransit service.
“I really don’t have access to public transit now,” said Robinson, who is blind. “I’m at the mercy of the system. Theres not a lot of inclusion in our society for persons with disabilities.”
John Teer, a Gary man who uses a wheelchair because of spina bifida, said he also relies on family members and the GPTC paratransit service.
“The money should go where it’s most immediately needed,” he said of transportation money. “We’re being overlooked. If you’re able to help us, then you don’t take it for another service that’s not going to benefit us. It would help us if it would help extend the bus service.”
A number of disability rights advocates and area residents who rely on a public bus system, especially people with disabilities, said all of the talk about the commuter rail extension has left them on the curb.
Championed by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, the South Shore extension will lay new commuter rail to Dyer in a first phase, which is estimated to cost between $571 million and $615 million.
The extension will be a boon to the local economy, Visclosky has said, boosting paychecks coming into the region from $247 million a year to $384 million.
A Visclosky spokeswoman said he “supports having a mass transportation system throughout Northwest Indiana that includes the South Shore rail extension and a robust regional bus system.”
Along with getting financial support from the 19 Lake County communities, which will dedicate part of their county income tax proceeds to the project, the extension will get a $4 million boost from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. A Senate bill signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence last week limits that property tax money to mass rail transit only.
That came as no surprise to disability rights advocate Teresa Torres, director of Everybody Counts in Merrillville.
Public officials often spend money and develop plans without discussing them with the people who will need the services, especially poor and disabled residents, she said.
“The real issue is the powers that be in Lake County continue to view ‘bus service’ as something for a separate type of human being,” Torres said. “It is definitely true for people who are low income, senior citizens, people with disabilities, an effective bus system is their link to life. It’s their link to many of the things we take for granted.”
Bus riders have not been totally forgotten in the discussion. NIRPC, the regional agency that administers many federal dollars into Northwest Indiana, requested language be inserted into the Senate bill Pence signed that set aside part of the RDA money for bus service expansion.
At Tuesday’s Gary Common Council meeting, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson requested part of Gary’s CEDIT money go to bus service.
“There are folks who rely heavily on our bus services, and, right now, Gary Public Transit (Corp.) is serving as the regional bus service,” she said “We do this because we know Gary residents need to get (around the county), but in so doing, there are other communities that benefit greatly from what we bring.
“My understanding is this is a much broader conversation, and one of the early wins for our community will be additional bus service.”
Elected officials countywide have been meeting to discuss expanding bus service, said Dave Wellman, spokesman for the RDA, citing “discussions going on” among Gary, East Chicago, south Lake County officials and more.
In fact, developing a regional bus system was one of the four main goals the state Legislature demanded in forming the RDA in 2005.
A regional bus service was created in 2000 and renamed the Regional Bus Authority in 2005. That service covered most of the county, but funding dried up for the agency, and it’s last buses rolled in mid-2012.