Bus ridership up 1.75% over last year as transit board mulls tweaks to proposed new routes, how to court Bloomington city council on key policy changes

cropped 2020-01-21 bt board meeting IMG_6208
At their Tuesday night meeting, the Bloomington Transit board gets a walk-through from general manager Lew May (blue shirt) of staff-recommended adjustments to a system of route re-configurations that came out of a consultant’s study. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

Tuesday’s regular monthly meeting of the Bloomington Transit (BT) board delivered a bright spot of news. The 3.16 million rides taken on fixed route buses in 2019 reflect a 1.75-percent increase over the total from 2018.

As BT general manager Lew May noted, it’s the first year-to-year increase since 2014, after four straight years of decreases.

Improving BT’s fixed-route ridership is part of the impetus behind a route optimization proposal the board is considering for implementation in August this year. The topic took up 90 minutes at Tuesday’s board meeting. The board could make a decision on the new route configuration at its February or March board meeting.

The route optimization proposal is based on a consultant’s study done last year and was presented to the public at meetings held in November and December. Based on the public’s feedback, BT staff recommended adjustments to the proposed route configuration. On Tuesday, May walked the board through the staff’s recommended adjustments.

New Bar Chart Hourly Bus Ridership
Ridership on Bloomington Transit fixed route during evening hours is a lot less less than the systemwide average of around 36 passengers per service hour.

Several of the staff’s adjustments backed off somewhat from the study recommendations to end evening service early on routes where evening ridership is low. In many instances, the staff adjustments don’t restore the span of hours to that of current routes, but do add an extra couple of hours—extending service from the study-recommended 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

BT is still considering using an outsourced micro-transit service to make up for the earlier end to evening service on many routes. Micro-transit is an Uber/Lyft style on-demand, app-based service where a vehicle might pick up additional people after heading to a passenger’s designation. If BT is awarded a federal grant worth $650,000, that would be enough to fund a one-year demonstration.

One of the study-recommended new routes would provide service to Ivy Tech and Cook Medical, which lie outside the city limits. To implement that route would require a change to Bloomington’s local law that defines BT’s geographic area as “coterminous with the boundaries of the city of Bloomington.”

May told the board that BT’s staff is neutral on the question of extending service outside the city’s boundaries, and would defer to the board and its direction. He added that Cook and Ivy Tech are very interested in BT bus service to their locations.

Ivy Tech now gets service from inside Bloomington to its campus through an arrangement with Rural Transit. BT and Rural Transit honor each other’s transfers, so students can take a BT bus to Whitehall Crossing Shopping Center, and then transfer to a Rural Transit bus, which takes them to Ivy Tech.

At Tuesday’s meeting, BT board members did not share complete agreement about the way the board ought to engage the city council on the question of an ordinance change.

Board member Alex Cartwright was sanguine about the idea, saying that since 2005, when he was on the board, there’d been talk about how advantageous it would be for students, employees and for BT’s ridership to extend service to Ivy Tech and Cook Medical locations.

Marilyn Hartman wanted to know if the city council was inclined to make the ordinance change. There’s no point in BT “flapping our wings” if the city council is not behind the idea, she said. Hartman was hesitant, pointing out that BT’s budgets have to be approved by the city council. She wanted to maintain a good, cooperative spirit with the council. She wants to see BT have a discussion with councilmembers and get a sense of where they stand.

Cartwright wanted to loop county officials into the discussion of providing service outside the city limits.

BT board member James McLary agreed that BT needs to get a sense of the council’s will, but said that BT itself needs to look at the public policy question.

The time that such an ordinance change would take to negotiate with the city council was a consideration for BT board member, Kent McDaniel. “I have my doubts,” he said, and it’s not something that can be resolved before the February or March board meeting. That’s when the route configuration will likely get a final board decision.

May told the board he was glad to have heard some discussion about how BT has a dialogue with the city council. Based on remarks towards the end of the discussion, May will be navigating some sort of approach to the city council on the topic of an ordinance change.

Support for an ordinance change that would allow BT to serve areas outside the city limits came during public commentary from Mary Morgan, director of advocacy for the Greater Bloomington Chamber Commerce. Morgan told the BT board there’s some momentum starting to build in the community for more public transit. Changing the ordinance would eliminate a barrier to expanding transit, she said.

Related to the idea of momentum, BT board member James McLary said earlier in the meeting, that the new edition of the city council—it was sworn in three weeks ago—is much more pro-transit than the previous council. McLary also pointed to the mention of public transit as one of the beneficiaries in Mayor John Hamilton’s New Year’s Day announcement about the idea of adding another half percent to Monroe County’s local income tax.

A call for additional funding for transit was made by resident Nancy Chadburn during time reserved for public commentary. Chadburn did not like the tradeoffs that had to be weighed for the new proposed routes in the Henderson and Hillside areas, where she lives. May told her it was a matter of trying to serve various multi-family housing complexes up and down Henderson Street—serving one well meant serving another one less well.

Chadburn summed it up this way: “It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul, and unfortunately I’m Peter at this point.”

Chadburn put her question to the city council and the mayor:

I know it’s a question of money and my underlying huge question is: Why isn’t the city giving the system more money, if they’re so interested in global warming and so on? I’d like to see them put their money where their mouth is. And I haven’t so far. I wish you guy  would pester … them. If you don’t pester people, you don’t get anywhere, that’s my experience. …

I thought about calling the mayor’s office this morning and asking if anybody was going to come to this meeting from their office. Is there anybody from the mayor’s office here? No. What does that tell you about their utter in difference to the whole thing?

At Tuesday’s BT board meeting, Chadburn also made a point that councilmember Steve Volan raised last fall when Mayor John Hamilton presented his 2020 budget: City hall workers pay only a nominal fee for parking. Chadburn said city hall workers must think, “Why should we take the bus when we can park for nothing?”

Volan wants to see a parking cash-out program, where every city employee is given a raise equal to the actual cost of parking, a sum that they can either put towards a parking permit or just realize as extra compensation. Volan expressed disappointment last year that it was not a part of the mayor’s budget proposal.

If the city council and the mayor find a way to increase funding for public transportation, will providing more service lead to more ridership?

One possible example—which involves not only funding more service, but probably also creating increased demand—is the displacement of Indiana University students from on-campus dormitories to off-campus locations.

At Tuesday’s meeting, when BT’s planning and special project’s manager, Zac Huneck, reported the increased ridership numbers for 2019 compared to 2018, the bump was attributed to increased service on a specific route—Route 6L.

Indiana University is currently paying BT to add two busses to Route 6L. The university wants to make sure that students who were relocated—from residence halls that are being rehabilitated to Park on Morton, Smallwood on College and Reserve on Third—are served with transit.

The 1.75 percent increase in BT fixed route ridership, from 2018 to 2019, still leaves ridership for 2019 about 10 percent lower than the 2014 peak.

Note: The reporter is married to Mary Morgan who is mentioned in the piece as the director of advocacy for the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.

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