Local advocates criticize Statehouse bill that would ban free Election Day bus rides

Observers are keeping a close eye on a bill in the Indiana Senate that would prohibit free or reduced fare public transportation service on Election Day as its last chance to be heard in committee approaches.

Senate Bill 187 — a one-line measure stating a public transportation agency shall not implement free or reduced fares on a general, primary, or municipal election day — put voting access advocates on high alert when it was introduced Jan. 9 and referred to the Senate Committee on Local Government.

No hearing has yet been called for the bill authored by Sen. Gary Byrne, R-Byrneville. Thursday is the last chance for the bill to be heard in committee this short legislative session. The senator has been quoted in media reports that taxpayer dollars should not be used to subsidize transportation on Election Day for some unless it could be done for all.

The legislation seems to target transit companies including IndyGo and Gary Public Transit Corp., who partnered with the AARP last year to offer free rides for both the primary and general elections. The cost of the day’s fares were underwritten by the AARP. There was no cost to the public transportation entity, David Wright, spokesman for the GPTC, said.

Since learning of the proposed legislation, the agency has been in contact with other public transit corporations throughout the state. They also have been in contact with the AARP.

“We didn’t eliminate fares. AARP paid for it,” Wright said, adding the nonprofit took over fare recovery those two days for all trips taken by riders.

Wright said the agency always looks for ways to eliminate transportation barriers and get people to the polls.

“AARP is making a concerted effort to be an active transportation partner here in Gary and Northwest Indiana. This is one of several ways they are doing that,” Wright said. He called seeing the program threatened by forces that did not appear to know the full details and minutia of the actual program upsetting.

“We’ve been talking to other public transit entities and making sure the positive impact of the program is not just known between each other, but with the legislators in that area,” he said.

No additional costs were incurred by GPTC on those days. The buses were out on their normal routes. He said the bulk of the funding to purchase the buses comes from federal and local dollars.

“Mobility isn’t based on who the rider is going to be voting for. Our service area is rather purple,” Wright said.

Jason Tomcsi, communications director for AARP Indiana, said the agency is monitoring the legislation and having conversations with legislators regarding the measure.

“Access to reliable transportation is crucial for older Hoosiers no matter where they live, because it allows them to stay in their homes and neighborhoods. It’s an issue we are focused on, no matter what day it is and for communities of all sizes,” Tomcsi wrote via email.

The AARP has a long history of engaging voters and ensuring voters 50-plus across the state have access to trusted information such as important election deadlines and where they can vote, he said, adding AARP does not endorse candidates.

“Through various efforts and partnerships, we work to ensure every candidate, regardless of party, is aware of the issues that matter most to older Hoosiers and their families like adequate housing, transportation, and healthcare options,” Tomcsi wrote.

Vanessa Allen McCloud, president and CEO of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana, said many people have no other means of transportation. Precinct consolidation means for some voters, their precincts may or may not be within walking distance any longer, depending on their age and mobility.

She said she supports AARP’s efforts to provide the free service on Election Day.

“I think there should be an opportunity for transportation. We need to find ways to help instead of hinder access,” she said.

The Urban League is on the front line trying to provide opportunities for people in all areas, specifically the right to vote.

“We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and continue to fight the fight to provide people with respect and also provide people with opportunities,” she said.

State Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell; Sen. Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton; and Sen. Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, serve on the committee.

Dernulc said that as the former Lake County GOP chairman he wants people to get to the polls and if an outside organization is willing to pay instead of taxpayers, that is great.

“It is incumbent on everybody to vote,” Dernulc said.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com