Rich James: Lake County Democrats no longer the party of the people
Tuesday, July 03, 2012 1:04 PM
MERRILLVILLE - Other than being away at college and a stint in the Army, Lake County always has been home. For the first time, I’m ashamed of the place where I was born and raised. I’m not ashamed of Lake County per se, but rather have lost most respect for the political leaders in the county.
Those elected officials turned their backs on bus service in Lake County last week. The EasyGo transit in Lake County and express bus service to downtown Chicago died because local elected official refused to identify a permanent local funding source. They barely tried.
Oh, there is still limited bus service in Gary, but that is on shaky ground.
Before continuing, allow me to turn the clock back to the 1950s. I was a kid growing up in Griffith, which then was the epitome of rural. When I was 10 and 11, buddies and I would catch the Shore Line bus and ride to Wicker Park in Highland to go swimming. The bus cost a nickel or dime. Other times we took the bus to downtown Hammond to see a movie at the Paramount or Parthenon. It was an efficient service that made a good deal of sense. The bulk of the population was in Hammond and other north county cities. That’s where one went for services, shopping and entertainment. Not everyone had a car back then. And two-car households were a rarity.
One needed the buses to get around.
Over time, Griffith started to grow as people moved south from Hammond and other north county communities. For those in suburbia, services now were fairly close at hand, not a bus ride away except for a few cases. And as suburban malls mushroomed, downtown Hammond and others like it crumbled. As the cities fell on hard times, the bus companies parked their vehicles.
Jump back to today.
Although the Paramount and Parthenon became extinct long ago, there still is a need for bus service in Lake County. It’s just a different type of service. Different direction if you will. In recent years, the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority was formed. Its goal was to bring all local bus service under its umbrella to guarantee a future for all. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott agreed to merge his city’s operation with the RBA. Gary and East Chicago refused.
EasyGo, which served Hammond and much of Lake County outside Gary, and the express to Chicago ceased operation Saturday. Paratransit service for those with disabilities will operate for just another month.
So, a county with almost 500,000 people is virtually without bus service. Pretty archaic, don’t you think?
Dyer resident Daniel Haryasz told the Times of Northwest Indiana that he blamed the Lake County Council for not establishing a permanent funding source for buses. “You would think elected officials could see this is something people need,” Haryasz said. “It’s not a political thing.”
But, alas, it is a political thing.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, the man who worked hardest for a regional bus system was in the private sector. Dennis Rittenmeyer, who retired a year ago as president of Calumet College of St. Joseph, spent his time away from the college working to establish a lasting bus service. In recent years, Cal Bellamy, a retired bank president and attorney, has championed Rittenmeyer’s cause.
Where are the elected officials?
Where is the vaunted Lake County Democratic organization?
I give county Democratic Chairman McDermott credit for folding Hammond’s bus service into the RBA. But McDermott should have rallied the Democratic officials and precinct committeemen to bring pressure on the county council and commissioners to establish a permanent funding source.
When the General Assembly was in session earlier this year, there was hardly a peep out of the NWI delegation about keeping the buses flowing back home. I guess that’s in part because they don’t ride buses when they return to their districts While the local legislators were doing nothing, local officials back home were doing their best to ignore the bus issue.
And since the legislature ended, there hasn’t been a hue and cry for bus service. The powerful Democratic organization hasn’t put the pressure on those who could keep the buses flowing. They sat on their hands. They didn’t want any part of being linked to a tax to fund bus service.
Even though government is to serve the people it represents – especially the less fortunate who rely on buses for jobs and services – the elected officials did nothing. They sold their souls rather than do the right thing and vote for a tax to keep buses running in the second most populous county in the state. They turned their backs on the people who are too busy surviving to have much of a voice.
Yeah, the lack of a public transportation system will be a real drawn for business and industry.
It’s all rather pathetic. And embarrassing.
And Democrats call themselves the party of the people?
Rich James is the former editorial page editor and columnist for the Post-Tribune in Merrillville.