Keith Benman, Times of Northwest Indiana

Transportation projects will continue to power forward in Northwest Indiana this year, with region bus service already scoring a historic "first."

On Jan. 1, the Regional Bus Authority took over Hammond's four-route transit system, promising to increase bus service by 70 percent in Hammond and nearby suburbs in as little as six months.

"And we still need to do more consolidation," said RBA Executive Director Tim Brown. "That is the only way we can make transit viable in the region."

The RBA's takeover of Hammond transit follows the successful first full year of "regional" bus routes operated by the Gary Public Transportation Corp. in Gary. The three regional routes pass through six communities and take people to schools and jobs across the region and beyond.

The regional routes are funded by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority with a requirement that the GPTC attains certain benchmarks for on-time buses and service.

The RBA was created under 2005 legislation specifically to consolidate the region's fragmented bus service.

The long-talked about Illiana Expressway has received a significant push this year, with the Indiana General Assembly considering legislation that would allow soliciting private investors to help pay for it. In exchange, investors could collect tolls on the road.

The proposed expressway would run from Interstate 65 in Indiana west through southern Lake County and continue to Interstate 55 southwest of Joliet, Ill.

The House was considering legislation in late January after the Senate overwhelmingly endorsed the project which some officials say should stretch not from I-65, but from LaPorte or Michigan City to Illinois.

"There seems to be renewed interest in the Illiana Expressway," said Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas. "We have to be forward-thinking about our roadway system. We understand it has to be evolving and has to move forward."

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels endorsed the proposed road three years ago and is pushing hard to make it the second big highway privatization arrangement of his administration. Four years ago, Daniels engineered the blockbuster 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road to ITR Concession Co., a Spanish-Australian partnership, for $3.8 billion.

Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District officials also hope this is the year they can submit a proposal to the Federal Transit Administration for engineering and environmental studies for extending the South Shore commuter rail line to Lowell. They plan to follow that eventually with a similar proposal for running a separate branch to Valparaiso.

All was not rosy on the transportation front in Northwest Indiana in the past year, but local leaders are hoping to transform setbacks into opportunities.

In November, the 1.2-mile Cline Avenue bridge linking both the Borman Expressway and Indiana Toll Road to local casinos and steel mills was temporarily closed after an engineering report showed bridge components had suffered serious damage from corrosion.

At the end of December, the Indiana Department of Transportation announced the span was not salvageable and would be demolished. At the same time, INDOT officials said the money to replace it already was set aside and they would solicit input from businesses, local government and the community to see how that should be done.

On the local front, the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission has begun forming a coalition of casinos, steel mills, businesses and government leaders to "speak with one voice" on what should be built in place of the bridge. Already, larger plans are emerging that would not only handle future increases in traffic, but would also assure access to new lakefront developments.

"A great deal of work will go into this," new NIRPC Chairwoman and LaPorte Mayor Kathleen Chroback said. "It takes working together to solve problems like this."

In November came another blow to regional transportation, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a move to create a Regional Transportation District that would have overseen both bus and South Shore rail service. The RTD also would have had the ability to impose an income tax.

Despite the RTD's rejection at the polls, region leaders appear determined to try to expand the commuter railroad. And the regionalization of bus service already is happening.

Costas said his city has sought to set a small example for the region in starting up its V-line bus service for city residents and the ChicagoDash express bus to Chicago's loop. But the mayor contends a bigger plan definitely is needed to expand the South Shore and get all the bus systems working together.

He hopes legislators will take another crack at forming a Regional Transportation District for planning regionwide transit.