Bloomington Transit board OKs shift to slightly bigger gear related to COVID-19 reopening

At its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday night, the five-member Bloomington Transit board approved a two-phase reopening plan for public bus service in the city.

The plan sets June 1 as the date when something closer to a normal summer break schedule will resume.

Public buses in Bloomington have still been running during the state’s COVID-19 emergency orders, but using a modified Saturday schedule every day. That reduces the number of service hours by about half compared to normal levels this time of year.

Schedules are posted on BT’s website. Realtime bus locations, when they are running, are available through the mobile app DoubleMap.

During the first phase of BT’s reopening plan, passengers can continue to ride the bus fare-free and board through the rear door. Through the first phase, drivers will continue to receive time-and-a-half hazard pay.

Some exceptions will apply to this year’s summer break schedule, notably less frequency of service on Route 6 and Route 9, which serve the Indiana University campus.

Ridership with the roughly 50-percent reduced service has dropped to just 10 percent of normal for this time of year. Last April, 329,827 passengers rode BT buses, compared to 31,938 this April.

The cancellation of in-person classes and closure of dormitories by Indiana University has impacted BT ridership this spring. Even though the university operates its own bus service, IU affiliates make up about 70 percent of BT’s normal ridership.

Hazard pay for drivers will end with the start of the second phase of BT’s reopening plan, but that date has not yet been determined, BT general manager Lew May told the board on Tuesday. But in any case, the second phase will not start before July 1, May said.

The exact start to the second phase will be decided after the governor’s next order is issued, factoring in local decisions by county health officials. Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s “Back on Track”  order expires at the end of the day on May 23. Monroe County’s current order, issued by its health officer, goes through May 31.

Union drivers are averaging 25 to 27 hours a week, May said, which means their hazard pay basically “makes them whole.”

BT’s relaxed attendance policy will end on May 20. During the stay-at-home orders, May said, drivers have been allowed to take off work for pretty much any reason and absences have not been tallied. Even after May 20, May said, employees still could make requests for time off and that BT would try to accommodate them.

When the second phase starts, passengers will start paying fares again and board through the front door. May said that maintenance staff have been working to devise some plexiglass shields to help separate drivers from passengers boarding through the front door.

In the second phase of reopening, BT will continue to provide its drivers with personal protection equipment (PPE)—masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

At its April meeting, BT’s board had put off most decisions on a set of new routes for August amid the uncertainty of Indiana University’s plans for returning students to campus in the fall.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board was still looking to a future when operations start to return to normal, by approving its annual plan for federal projects. Capital projects are matched by the feds on an 80-20 basis. Operations funding is split 50-50.

For capital and operations projects combined, BT will be getting $2.96 million in federal funds in return for its $2.5 million local match.

Helping to shore up BT’s finances in the coming year will be a $7.8 million grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Controller Christa Browning told the board that the CARES funds are already available to be drawn down. May said that BT’s strategy will be to use its assistance from the state of Indiana, before drawing on the federal CARES money, because the state funds need to be used this year.

The $7.8 million in CARES Act funding does not expire, controller Christa Browning told the board on Tuesday. All operational expenses are eligible to be paid using CARES Act funding, she said.

BT Federal 5307 Projects for 2020

Capital Projects Federal 5307 Local Total
Grimes Lane Facility Maintenance $290,600 $72,650 $363,250
Automatic Passenger Counting Technology $160,000 $40,000 $200,000
Engine/Transmission Rebuilds, Hybrid Energy Units, and Tires $163,780 $40,945 $204,725
Subtotal Capital $614,380 $153,595 $767,975
Operating Assistance $2,341,970 $2,341,970 $4,683,940
Total Capital & Operating Projects $2,956,350 $2,495,565 $5,451,915

Indiana Transit System CARES Act Awards

Transit System CARES Act Award
Anderson, IN $3,463,338
Bloomington, IN $7,829,963
Columbus, IN $2,489,132
Elkhart, IN-MI $5,894,199
Kokomo, IN $2,670,876
Lafayette, IN $11,120,224
Michigan City-La Porte, IN-MI $2,807,381
Muncie, IN $5,687,073
Terre Haute, IN $4,064,320