Friday, November 25, 2005

Time Zone Debate not Over

Just suppose that Indianapolis and Marion County remained in the Eastern time zone and that Johnson County was switched to Central time. Imagine what a headache that would be for commuters who live in one county and work in the other.

Imagine, too, how it would upset TV viewers’ abilities to figure out what time the news came on, or what time stores opened and closed. It would be a mess.

If the U.S. Department of Transportation follows its original recommendation, that scenario might just play out in a couple of areas of the state. Locations in northern Indiana would be especially vulnerable to time zone chaos.

Earlier this year the General Assembly finally voted to allow the entire state to observe daylight saving time. Historically, only a handful of counties near Chicago and Evansville observe daily time, and those counties are in the Central time zone.

But one provision of the new law mandated that the governor ask the DOT, the federal agency that is responsible for setting time zone boundaries, to look into whether or not Indiana should change time zones.

The agency decided to allow individual counties to petition for a change in time zone. Seventeen counties did so. All 17 are currently in the Eastern time zone and want to be in the Central time zone.

St. Joseph County, including the City of South Bend, petitioned to switch zones and the preliminary recommendation by the DOT was in approval of the request. But neighboring Elkhart County, which includes the cities of Elkhart and Goshen, did not petition to switch to the Central time zone.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has said it would be unacceptable to draw a time zone boundary through the middle of a metropolitan area. And he’s correct.

But state Reps. Steve Heim, R-Culver, and David Crooks, D-Washington want to put the whole time zone issue to a state referendum. And Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Lakeville, wants to take a step backward and repeal the law that was enacted earlier this year.

Indiana does not have binding referendums, unlike states like California. Residents do not pass laws directly here; they elect legislators to do that. Even if a state referendum were held, it would not be binding, according to Senate Pres. Pro Tempore, Robert Garton, R-Columbus.

But beyond that, it would not be at all in the state’s best economic interest to be wholly within one time zone or the other. Just as the metropolitan area around South Bend should not be divided by a time zone boundary, the Greater Chicago metropolitan area should not be divided.

The only real question that should be asked and answered is which, if any, of the counties that are adjacent to those that are now in the Central time zone should be switched. A few of those counties may have a case for economic benefit from joining the Central time zone. Other counties who petitioned for a change are clearly better off from an economic standpoint by staying in the Eastern time zone.

The DOT held public hearings this month. The hearings were not to garner votes on the matter, but to get input from the public. A decision is expected in January.

The governor expects the DOT will follow his recommendation that St. Joseph County not be included in the Central time zone. The agency will base its final decision on what is best economically for each petitioning county.

As for those lawmakers who want to revisit the issue during the upcoming legislative session, few of their counterparts believe there is much chance that the issue will come up again. It was settled in the last session.

Hopefully, by the end of January, everyone in the state will know which time zone they will be living in. All they have to do after that is remember to spring forward and fall back.

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