La PORTE — The La Porte County Board of Commissioners plan to take on the state over what one member described as a “hostile takeover” of the South Shore Line.
The board passed a resolution on Wednesday that opposed the Indiana General Assembly’s recent change to the leadership of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which gives Gov. Eric Holcomb sole authority to appoint members to the agency’s board of directors.
The resolution also authorized the commissioners to retain the services of Indianapolis-based law firm Cohen & Malad to explore any legal remedies the county can take to maintain some local control of the NICTD board.
The change – which reduces the size of the board from 11 to five members – came as part of the budget the General Assembly passed last week during the waning days of the legislative session.
The bill also appropriated an additional $205 million to the $360 million the legislature had already committed to spending over the next 30 years for two South Shore Line improvement projects – double-tracking between Michigan City and Gary; and a new West Lake Corridor in Lake County.
Under the new scheme, the governor will appoint four NICTD board members, one from each of the four Indiana counties the South Shore Line runs through, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. The appointees will serve alongside Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe McGuinness, the chair of the new board.
Before the change, the board’s membership consisted of three governor appointees and one commissioner and one council member appointed by their respective board presidents in La Porte, Lake, Porter and St. Joseph counties. County-appointed representatives have served on the board for the past 42 years.
Speaking before commissioners Wednesday, state Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, said Indiana Budget Director Jason Dudich and other state officials explained to him and other Democratic lawmakers with districts in the NICTD corridor the rationale behind the change. It was, he was told, to help the state’s chances of receiving grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration for the two South Shore improvement projects, estimated to cost around $1 billion to complete.
Dvorak is opposed to the change and voted against the budget, he said. Because the four counties that comprise NICTD own the agency, which in turns owns the South Shore Line tracks and commuter service, Dvorak does not believe the governor has the authority by statute to take control, he said.
“What I’m encouraging each county to do is to at least retain some representation to explore your options,” Dvorak said. “There are any number of ways this action could be potentially illegal, and we want to make sure our communities are represented and that they’re not ‘railroaded'.”
La Porte County Councilman Mark Yagelski, who served on the NICTD board for 18 years before its recent dissolution, also spoke to the commissioners. He said he had traveled to Indianapolis and Washington on multiple occasions as an advocate for the South Shore Line, and was disappointed that lawmakers could not give the previous board at least until the end of the year to prepare for the transition.
“It’s like getting a divorce, and having the divorce papers sent to you,” Yagelski said, quoting a statement made by St. Joseph County’s Mark Catanzarite, a fellow NICTD board member. “When you put that much heart, that much soul into something, that’s what it does to you.”
Commissioner Sheila Brillson Matias, reading a letter she addressed to Gov. Holcomb, expressed strong opposition to the move. She said it was the previous NICTD board and other local leaders who put in the legwork to keep the railroad chugging along for the past 40 years and laid the foundation for the planned improvement projects at the heart of the leadership change.
“While we are thankful for the tax dollars invested in this important project, our Hoosier values bridle at this hostile takeover move,” Matias said. “It doesn’t feel square with our history, and the integrity and value of local control, as well as our proven ability to drive the train into the future as we have done for over four decades.”
In an email statement, La Porte County Attorney Shaw Friedman, speaking on behalf of Board of Commissioners President Vidya Kora, asked state lawmakers representing La Porte County to relay Matias’ name to Gov. Holcomb for consideration to serve on the new NICTD board.