Chesterton Tribune



Mixed emotions as state takes over NICTD board

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Elected officials learned just a day ahead of the vote on Indiana’s state budget bill that a section of it puts the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) board under the Governor’s purview.

NICTD, the governing body of the South Shore Line, had two locally appointed representatives from each of the four counties it serves and three governor appointees until Monday, when Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the budget bill.

The budget bill cuts the NICTD board to five members----all governor appointed---as well as dedicates $205 million in funding for the South Shore Line’s West Lake Corridor expansion and Double Track project. $20 million of the $205 million is budgeted as a contingency in case the Federal Transit Administration opts to cut the federal portion of the project’s funding.

In addition to cutting the board’s size, the bill stipulates that all five board members must be office-holders, whereas two of the governor’s appointees in the past represented riders and South Shore employees.

Reactions were mixed, save for surprise.

Porter County Commissioner Jim Biggs (R-North) has a combined 15 years representing Porter County on the NICTD board.

“I’m surprised, but at the same time, I think that there’s reason to feel excitement because I think we’re entering a new chapter with that railroad,” Biggs said.

Biggs said the South Shore Line “doesn’t have its own taxing rate in the four counties it serves,” and that the state has the kind of resources required to reliably maintain it.

“I’m excited that the state’s involved. I truly am,” Biggs continued. “I can’t find fault in it, that they’re looking for more control. They have a lot of money on the line.”

Biggs added he hopes Holcomb retains one or two of the prior board members, to provide continuity and institutional memory. He said he “won’t make it a secret” that he’d like to continue on the board.

State Rep. Chuck Moseley (D-Portage) was less than amused by the sudden change: “Once again the state is reducing local control. What’s new?”

“I’ve got mixed emotions,” Moseley said. “I’m extremely happy and excited that the state’s stepping up to ensure this funding match is going to exist in the event that the feds drop their match.”

Moseley, who said the legislature wasn’t given more than a day’s notice of the change, took issue with both the decision itself and how it was made.

“I’m really disappointed that there wasn’t enough faith or trust in folks in the region that are gonna be affected by it or in the existing board members to sit down at the table with them and explain why and what they were going to do,” Moseley said.

“I’m not so convinced that making a wholesale decision like that behind closed doors was in the best interest of the taxpayers or of the whole state,” Moseley added.

Additionally, Moseley was skeptical of explanations given for the change, namely that the chain of authority for NICTD was confounding to the FTA.

“We deserve answers, and I don’t know that we got very many,” Moseley said. “I didn’t get what I believe was a satisfactory explanation for removing the existing structure that was serving NICTD and the South Shore line well for decades.”

Porter County Council President, and Porter County’s other representative on the NICTD board, Dan Whitten (D-At-large) was also surprised by the change, but his reaction fell between Biggs’ excitement and Moseley’s dissatisfaction.

“It came as a surprise, and it came as a disappointing surprise,” Whitten said of the Boards reconstitution. “I don’t think this change serves much of a purpose.”

Whitten said there are some really talented elected officials across the region who could both serve on the board and appoint members to it, and he wondered: why change the process?

“I think the county council and commissioners have more of an understanding of county government than the governor does,” Whitten said, “so it seems odd that he would remove appointing authority from a body that has a hands-on understanding.”

“As County Council President, I’d like to see the Council maintain authority over something so important to the County,” Whitten said, though he “won’t lose sleep” over the change.

Whitten and Biggs differed on whether or not the new board composition will constitute a loss of perspective from riders and employees.

The appointees who spoke for riders and employees sometimes brought knowledge and vision that officeholders don’t have, according to Whitten. “As an appointee of the County Council, my greatest knowledge and insight stems from Porter County.”

Of those appointments disappearing, Whitten said: “That’s gonna be a loss. I think they brought something to the table.”

Biggs said elected officials can be trusted do the right thing for riders, who are their constituents.

“As for the employees, I will leave that up to the administration, and I will leave that up to the unions that represent them,” Biggs said. “A talented administration will take care of its employees.”

Mike Noland, general manager of NICTD, for his part expressed strong confidence in the commitment and abilities of the new board, however Gov. Holcomb may reconstitute it.

For one thing, Noland said each of the four counties in NICTD’s service territory --Porter, Lake, LaPorte, and St. Joseph--will be represented on the new board by one of its own elected officials. For another, no more than two of those four counties’ representatives may be of the same political party.

The fifth seat on the board will be filled, under the language of the budget bill, by the Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation, currently Joe McGuinness. That means, Noland said, that “INDOT has a direct vested interest in rail service.”

Noland added that nothing in the language of the budget bill reconstituting the NICTD board in any way changes the authority of that board. “The new board has the same powers as the old board,” which--he said--has certainly in the past been forced to make its own “hard decisions” about such thorny issues as fares, schedules, and stations.

“What has changed is personnel and how they’re appointed and who they are,” Noland said. “I certainly understand the disappointment of the current board members, because they serve with passion and do a great job and take great pride in the South Shore service. But some of them could end up on the new board, and I will serve whatever board that is running the organization to the best of my ability.”

Noland did express his gratitude for the $205 million commitment, formalized in the budget bill, to the West Lake Corridor and the Double-Tracking projects. “Bottom line: We are ecstatic,” he said. “The old NICTD board members, whatever their disappointment may be about the reconstitution, are tremendously ecstatic.”

“That sends the strongest possible message to the Federal Transit Administration that the state is totally behind those projects,” Noland said, and that could mean all the difference in the nationwide scramble for federal matching grants. “For our ability to be competitive, we needed to have those funds available. This is our one shot to get those projects up and running and not be delayed. It’s the state saying ‘We continue to be all in, even if it means we have to provide additional money.’ That is so important.”



Posted 5/3/2019




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