BY KEITH BENMAN, Times of Northwest Indiana
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More than ever, mass transit providers are in the same boat when it comes to keeping their heads above water in Indiana.

"We still don't have a mechanism that will fund these things, so they struggle," Kent McDaniel, executive director of the Indiana Transportation Association, said.

Mass transit providers across the state are hoping this will be the year that situation changes, and they gathered Wednesday in Hammond at the Indiana Transportation Association's annual meeting to start the ball rolling.

Excitement about the proposed expansion of the South Shore commuter rail line and proposals to link affluent suburbs in Hamilton County with Indianapolis by light rail or express bus have raised hopes.

"Mass transit is not an ugly stepchild, it is an integral part of the overall transportation system," said Christine Altman, a Hamilton County Commissioner and president of the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority.

This year's legislative addition of $7 million in state sales tax revenue to fund mass transit statewide in Indiana was a good first step, Altman said.

Still, after years of service cuts in many areas, the 70 attendees at ITA meeting at the Ramada Inn and Conference Center were quick to recognize the cold realities.

The issue is where will we get more money in a way that is as painless as possible to the ordinary citizen," Dennis Rittenmeyer, president of the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority, said.

The Regional Bus Authority earlier this year floated a plan for regional bus service that would have required about $14 million in annual funding. It ended up with a two-year allocation of $6.5 million from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

The South Shore extension would require a minimum of $30 million per year for the next three decades, according to proponents.

Rittenmeyer outlined ideas for ongoing funding of mass transit in Northwest Indiana, which include a gas tax, sales tax and the longtime attempt to pass a food and beverage tax to support mass transit.

More funding sources may come to light in the next two years, as the Indiana Department of Transportation conducts its own studies of what's needed to expand mass transit in Indiana.

"We want to know where can the state get involved in expanding transit and implementing transit as part of the overall solution," Brian Piascik, a consultant on the INDOT studies, said.

The studies were authorized by Senate Enrolled Act 105, which provided $1 million in funding.

IndyGo President and CEO Gil Holmes told attendees it was essential to get the business community on board in support of any effort to increase funding.

That happened several years ago in Indianapolis when cuts in bus service showed area employers such as hospitals and hotels how much their workers depend on IndyGo buses to get to work, Holmes said.

"They were up in arms," Holmes said.

IndyGo recently initiated a "red line" to IUPUI that is already carrying 16,000 riders per month, Holmes said.

In Hamilton County, proponents of mass transit are looking at local income taxes and local option sales taxes as possible funding sources, Altman said.

"We cannot continue to grow and thrive in any area of the state unless we have convenient, open access to mass transit," Altman said.
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