• Lack of transparency doomed Dunes liquor license

    Supporters of a liquor license at Indiana Dunes State Park were denied Tuesday morning when the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission reinforced the recommendation of the Porter County Alcoholic Beverage Board to reject the return of alcohol to the lakefront.

    Pavilion Partners LLC can appeal the Commission's 4-0 decision, but the developer's principal Chuck Williams has said that operation of a restaurant is impossible without a liquor license.

    Pavilion Partners has the support of local tourism officials, along with the Northwest Indiana Forum. The Times editorialized in favor of the project. All cite the potential economic benefits of bringing an attractive banquet facility to the lakeshore.

    On the other side, is Dunes Action, a grassroots organization that opposed the introduction of alcohol as something that would fundamentally change the current family-oriented atmosphere of the park and cause safety concerns as well. 

    Beyond safety, Dunes Action's case against Pavilion Partners was bolstered by a less-than-transparent process with an undercurrent of politics. That process turned the tide from what once appeared to be a done deal to Tuesday's defeat.

    The Post-Tribune uncovered emails that showed Pavilion Partners' Williams, former Porter County Republican chairman, was in contact with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources about the potential project as early as 2010. A request for proposal was published November 2011 in the Chesterton Tribune, the lone Northwest Indiana publication where it was printed.

    Just one other group submitted a proposal to the DNR by the March 2012 deadline. Pavilion Partners won the contract with the benefit of its head start. When Pavilion Partners released details of its plan and renderings for the banquet facility earlier this year, the backlash began. Park supporters who backed the renovation of its historic pavilion questioned the impact that a large banquet center building would have on the fragile lakefront.

    In the scramble to stop the development, the liquor license that had yet to be granted became the avenue for opposition. While the focus of Tuesday's decision was limited to alcohol, the battle over the State Park project has always been about process.

    Had the DNR gone about its plans differently, it may well have been able to sell the public on the concept of building a new attraction to fund the preservation of a historic building. We might have seen a very different outcome than the one that now leaves the development in limbo.

  • Left lane legislation lunacy

    We’ve all heard of the nanny state, passing laws for our protection whether we like it or not. Well, brace yourselves for its party animal cousin, the “bro state.” 

    You might not have heard the term (as far as I know, I just now made it up), so allow me to explain: Like so many quintessentially “bro” things (eating mountains of chicken wings, drinking contests, staying out all night partying during the workweek, racing your midsize sedan down suburban streets), the bro state appeals to the more primal instincts in every male. And also like those things, no matter how bad the idea is when you actually think about it, the bro state is going to do it anyway.

    The bro state has made its mark in Indiana, in the form of the state’s new left-lane law. Basically, the law stipulates that drivers in the left lane of interstate highways must change lanes to allow vehicles going faster than them pass, even if that vehicle is speeding. Failure to do so could warrant a $500 fine.

    So starting July 1, keep that in mind if you’re getting on I-65 to go downstate, or are heading east on I-80 or I-94 (it’s not a huge problem if you’re headed west, as left lanes become turn-only lanes once you cross into Illinois). Even if you’re driving the speed limit or the unwritten but acceptable few mph above it, and the guy coming up behind you is a reckless speed demon, it’s still your responsibility to get over and let them pass. In effect, Indiana has put speeders in the right.

    This is but a taste of the havoc the bro state could unleash on the Hoosier State. Soon, speed limits could become speed minimums, followed by the advent of speed cameras like our neighbor in Illinois, but instead used to punish those who drive too slowly. Then, not only will more environmentally friendly vehicles be banned, but the obnoxious practice of coal-rolling will be made mandatory…

    Okay, maybe my paranoid imagination is overreacting. But this is still a stupid law. If someone’s driving dangerously slow on the highway, I could see that warranting a ticket, but people observing the speed limit should not be punished and certainly not have to yield to reckless drivers who are breaking it.

    We’ve all come across cars going slow on the highway. And we’ve probably passed them, left them behind, and continued on our trips without a second thought. We don't need laws legislating etiquette on the highway or elsewhere that puts irresponsible actions like speeding in higher legal standing.

  • Time has run out on putting off transportation spending

    More than a decade ago, I recall sitting in an editorial board meeting with U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky where he pointed to a commuter rail map of the Chicago area.

     

    In Illinois, rail lines reached out like tendrils in every direction to the suburbs. Once you looked east of the state line, though, it was only the lonely South Shore line, hugging the bottom of Lake Michigan. At the time, Visclosky was making the case for local tax dollars to match federal funds for a South Shore expansion study.

     

    Transportation is a drum that Visclosky has been beating constantly this century, arguing that expanded rail is the key to expanded economic opportunity in Northwest Indiana. This year, the drumbeat is finally turning into action. The state Legislature’s approval this year of $6 million annually to the Regional Development Authority for the South Shore set the stage for the Westlake extension to Dyer.

     

    Earlier this month, a delegation from Northwest Indiana made a pitch for a Regional Cities grant to help fund the double tracking of the existing South Shore line, something that would greatly reduce current travel times to and from Chicago.

     

    After watching the live stream of the sales pitch for the grant, led by Bill Hanna, CEO of the RDA, I posted on Twitter to say it would be difficult to deny the case our local delegation made. Quicker commutes and transit-oriented development near existing rail stops would simply allow Northwest Indiana to catch up with Illinois' suburbs.

     

    Soon, I was in a Twitter discussion with Jeff Terry, who believes train technology is outdated and it doesn’t make sense to invest in rail when driverless vehicles are on the horizon.  He envisions automated cars that would link together like trains, making travel on roadways more efficient. With big tech companies such as Tesla, Google, Apple and Uber in the game, the development of driverless vehicles is accelerating.

     

    Automated cars are an attractive thought, particularly the increased freedom of not being limited to the route and stops along a rail line. But even autocars require infrastructure spending, as we saw this week when Gov. Mike Pence unveiled a $1 billion plan over the next four years to maintain the state’s roads and bridges. Pence, facing a tough re-election fight, is attempting to blunt criticism over Indiana’s surplus not being used to address repair needs.

    Mass transit fed by driverless vehicles may one day be part of the Region’s transportation equation, though it’s hard to know when that day will come. Yes, trains are old technology, but they are here now. When it comes to transportation, Northwest Indiana has waited long enough.

  • Transportation in northwest Indiana

     

    It is no secret that public transportation has been on the decline in northwest Indiana.  Reliance on cars has started to create a sprawl. “In the 1990s, the 10.9 percent growth in car and truck ownership was three times as high as the population growth of 2.9 percent” per the2012 Quality of Life Indicators Report. If passenger car usage continues to increase, congestion and road work costs will both begin to soar. But I won’t dwell much on the problems, instead let’s look at some potential solutions. Image taken from 2012 Indicators Report

     

    The first solution I will present has a focus on sustainability. Introduce a new line of busses that run on eithersolar electricityorcorn because God knows we have a substantial amount of both. While the initial investment in this solution would be high, we are obviously looking at long term implications here.

     

    Another solution to the problem could a national high speed rail system. If this were to happen, the route from New York City to Chicago would have to run through northwest Indiana, so why not add our support for some stops here. Who am I kidding though, the nationalhigh speed rail system is a pipe dream that will never happen, especially with all the cuts to public programs already happening, but one can dream can’t they?

     

    Another factor to consider in this discussion is the other role of transportation, the business side. In order to physically bring business to northwest Indiana the Gary-Chicago International Airport would almost certainly need to be upgraded. Currently a plan is in place to extend the runway from 7,000 to 8,900 feet. This will allow for larger commercial and passenger jets to utilize the conveniently located third airport of Chicago

     

    Finally, I will present to you a solution that has less to do with busses and more to do with passenger cars. What if we cut the bus system completely and focused our efforts on a car sharing service likeSidecar. Basically, Sidecar is a service that allows anyone to become a part-time taxi driver in their own car. I know it doesn’t sound glamorous but it could be a viable solution with all the potential passenger cars in the area. Just think of it as turning your everyday routes to work into a way to turn a profit and reduce road traffic, and isn’t that really the end goal of this whole situation?


    So what will it be Indiana? Planning for the future by investing in the bus of tomorrow that will continue to be sustainable into the distant future. Chasing a pipedream that will bring high speed rail transportation to northwest Indiana. Or settle for a basic solution that has a relatively low cost and allows for Indiana residents to make some money on the side. The solution seems obvious. There is no one solution, it will most likely be a combination of the solutions above with some that haven’t been mentioned in this article. But whatever the solution, the time to act is now.

  • We need a better public transit system

    By many accounts, Americans are driving much less often than they have at times in the past. You wouldn’t know it if you live in Northwest Indiana, though, because frankly, with few exceptions, there is little alternative to cars for navigating the suburban communities that make up The Region. The South Shore line can get you to Chicago much cheaper than driving there and parking in the city, and also take you from one town to the next. But unless you’re final destination is Chicago, you won’t be getting around much without a set of wheels.

    The opportunity to drive much less would seem very attractive to Region residents financially. It’s expensive to fill up a car. Even a regular midsize model could set you back around sixty bucks at the pump.

    One possible way to reduce driving is using a ride-for-hire organization. There’s not a strong taxi service infrastructure in the Region, but online apps like Lyft or Uber have changed the hired ride game. With either service, it’s easy to find a driver anyplace, and all through an app on your phone. But they cost as much as a standard cab fare, sometimes more.

    A better, more complete solution would be a public transit system. A great model for this would be the Valparaiso V-Line. It’s a thorough system, with stops near every major business center, school, government office, the South Shore station and Valparaiso University, as well as within walking distance of residential areas. A fare is only a dollar each time, or $30 for a month, less than filling up the car every month.

    The only question is: will people would use it? While a V-Line-like transportation system could save them money, using such a system would mean residents would have to conform to its schedule. Driving themselves, they can be on their own schedule, and do their routine at their convenience.

    I attended Valpo University for a year, and while living on campus, I used the V-line for going to the store or catching a movie at the theater. It was free for students, so lots of them used it. So did many Valpo residents. It was relatively new at the time (2008-09), but it ran smoothly and conveniently.

    Then again, the V-Line was much smaller then, and mostly centered on the University and main downtown area. Now it’s much bigger, with more routes and stops in every corner of the town. It’s probably safe to say that such an expansion wouldn’t have taken place if the service wasn’t a success.