BY PATRICK GUINANE, Times of Northwest Indiana
pguinane@nwitimes.com

INDIANAPOLIS | Renewed talk of boosting mass transit in Indiana began Thursday without state transportation Commissioner Karl Browning.

Much to the chagrin of several region legislators, the commissioner dispatched an underling to the first meeting of the Legislature's Joint Study Committee on Mass Transit and Transportation Alternatives. Lawmakers said Browning's absence further feeds the perception that the state has little interest in fostering new bus and rail service.

"We need to see the big picture, and we need to hear it from the top guy," said state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso. "It's too bad he wasn't here."

State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, at one point expressed sympathy for Indiana Department of Transportation legislative liaison Chris Kiefer, who pinch-hit for Browning, answering more than two hours of questions.

"There were so many questions that couldn't be answered and some of the answers were so vague and not very definitive," Rogers complained.

So where was Browning?

INDOT spokesman Andy Dietrick said the agency decided Kiefer was best equipped to answer the detailed questions the committee sent INDOT last week.

Legislators from both parties complained INDOT suffers from tunnel vision and should focus on connecting communities with regional mass transit, not just new roads.

Bus and rail programs receive about $42 million of the state's roughly $800 million annual transportation budget. And, Kiefer acknowledged, INDOT typically doesn't get involved in mass transit projects until after a local planning organization has laid the groundwork.
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