NIRPC celebrates 50 years of building up the Region

NWI Times

The largest gatherings of Region elected officials happens several times a year on a Thursday morning in Portage, when the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission gathers mayors, council members, surveyors and more from the three-county area.

This month, the organization wrapped up celebration of 50 years in existence, marking the anniversary of the creation of its predecessor, the Lake-Porter County Regional Transportation and Planning Commission, by Gov. Richard Branigin in 1966. It was authorized by legislation passed in 1965.

Today NIRPC includes three counties and 41 municipalities representing nearly 800,000 citizens. The 53 elected officials on the commission are aided by a staff of more than 20.

 

The organization now shepherds more than $1 billion of federal transportation funds through a four-year cycle to local projects.

But Executive Director Ty Warner said recollections of the last half century have tended to pull staff members' thoughts toward stories of colleagues and commission members and staffers.

"It's really about the people who have been at the table," Warner said of this year's reminiscences.

An in-the-works history of the organization distills those people's wide-ranging activities over the last half-century. A draft of the history, researched and compiled by recently retired deputy director Steve Strains, was distributed Thursday.

A review of it reveals a variety of recurring issues.

South Shore Line

The South Shore's first mention is in December 1968, when the commission's board heard a presentation on a plan to spend $9 million on new passenger cars. The effort to fund new passenger cars continued while the state stepped in to save the struggling rail line in the late 1970s, creating the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District and a commuter rail service fund to shore up finances.

New cars finally arrived in 1982, along with infrastructure improvements along the line, and NICTD took final ownership of the railroad at the end of 1989 and beginning of 1990.

NIRPC endorsed a commuter rail extension to Lowell at that same time, along with the recommendations of a first West Lake Corridor Study, which analyzed transportation in west Lake County.

Borman Expressway

The constant pressure of traffic volume on Interstate 80/94 has also been a recurring theme. A Borman Task Force was formed in 1984, led by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Sr.

A report on the Borman, released later that year, recommended rebuilding of interchanges, construction of a visitors' center and other upgrades. By 1989, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar secured funding for a study that would consider removing tolls on the Indiana Toll road and building another east-west expressway.

By 1990 interchange reconstruction projects were underway on the Borman, and a reconstruction and widening project began in 2004, another recommendation of two decades earlier.

Quality of life

A trend toward deeper engagement in quality of life issues has emerged during the agency's history:

• The Marquette Plan for enhancing public access and recreation along the lakeshore was first mentioned in 1985 as "an idea, not yet a plan" of freshman U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky. The most recent Marquette Plan was published in 2015.

• NIRPC has been involved in marina development along the lakeshore since its beginnings. By spring 1991, significant projects were underway in Hammond, which opened a $23 million marina that spring, and East Chicago, Gary and Portage.

• In August 1994, more than a year's work produced a proposal for a regional bicycle network that would include "five abandoned railroad lines, two east-west paths on the levees of the Little Calumet and Kankakee Rivers, county roads, and town and city streets." In 2016, Northwest Indiana has more than 140 miles of land- and water-based recreational trails.

NIRPC intends to publish a final version of the history on its website, www.nirpc.org, next year.