Ridership still down on Bloomington public buses, fare-free rides continue, new agreement reached with IU, second driver tests positive for COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing ridership on Bloomington Transit buses to slump compared to normal levels, even if the month-to-month numbers have shown increases starting in May.

The return to campus of Indiana University students in August has increased numbers a bit, but the historical September spike is not evident on this year’s chart. That’s because the local travel needs of students have diminished due to the prevalence of classes offered online.

The reduced ridership means BT has reduced its service hours on routes that primarily serve campus locations—Routes 6, 7, and 9. That has led BT and IU to renegotiate the agreement under which university affiliates can board buses without paying a fare. The renegotiation reduced the payment to around 70 percent of the historical number.

At their Tuesday meeting, BT board members voted to continue BT’s COVID-19 protocols another month, which includes allowing all riders to board buses without paying a fare.

On Wednesday the city issued a press release announcing that a second BT bus driver has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The first driver tested positive on Aug. 3. According to Wednesday’s press release, an internal contact tracing process determined that there were no other employees or customers placed at risk of exposure by the driver. They drove on Routes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 9 from Oct. 3 to Oct. 17, according to the release.

At their Tuesday meeting, BT board members approved an arrangement that takes the payments made historically by Indiana University to BT as a base. The base is then reduced by a multiplier equal to the fraction of revenue hours that BT offers in a given month compared to its normal levels of service. That allows the monthly payment to vary as BT’s services levels vary, to match the university’s longer winter break this year.

On Tuesday, BT general manager Lew May said that BT is currently running between 65 and 75 percent of its normal revenue hours on campus routes. That works out to about $60,000 a month that IU will be paying BT under the re-negotiated arrangement. ($87,720 * 0.70). Historically, the university has paid BT around $1 million to allow its affiliates to board BT buses without paying a fare.

The agreement goes through early February. May said an additional addendum covering Feb. 8, 2021 thru June 30, 2021 would be negotiated late this year or early in 2021.

Asked by board members what the reduced payments mean for BT’s financial health, May said reduced service also means reduces expenses. He also pointed to CARES Act funding that BT can tap to bridge gaps related to COVID-19 effects.

In raw numbers, 88,858 rides were taken on BT buses in September this year, compared to 383,263 in the same month a year ago. Percentage-wise that’s 23 percent of last September’s ridership.

Also at Tuesday’s board meeting, BT’s controller, Christa Browning, reported a clean bill of health from state and federal audits of BT’s accounts for 2019.