Bloomington Transit mulls ending pandemic-based fare-free rides

At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Bloomington Transit (BT) board, the continuation of COVID-19 protocols, including fare-free, rear-door boarding for all bus passengers, was confirmed for another month.

It could be the last time the board votes to approve the protocols, without a date for resumption of regular service.

Board members are looking towards a resumption of regular operations by the fall. That’s when Indiana University has announced in-person classes will resume.

About 70 percent of BT’s normal, non-pandemic ridership comes from IU affiliates—students, staff and faculty. They don’t pay a fare when they board, because their rides are covered under an agreement between IU and BT.

The BT board’s next monthly meeting, in April, will include an agenda item to consider the formal question of resuming fare collection, effective as early as June 1.

The board’s decision not to collect fares—made early in the pandemic—was based on the goal of limiting the opportunity for driver-passenger COVID-19 disease spread, by allowing passengers to board through the bus rear doors. Fare boxes are located next to the driver’s seat at the front door of the buses.

On Tuesday, BT general manager Lew May reported to the board that the drivers union recommends resumption of fare collection as soon as possible.

About the union’s recommendation, May said, “They have noticed over the past year, a marked increase in the homeless population that has been using the bus as a place of refuge. And, and in some cases, they have caused some difficulty for us.”

How will the resumption of public bus fare collection affect the population of people who are experiencing homelessness, and organizations who serve them?

According to Beacon, Inc. executive director Forrest Gilmore, during non-pandemic times, the nonprofit spends about $500 a month on 50-percent discounted bus fares for its clients. That translates into 1,000 rides a month. That’s an expense that Beacon, Inc. has been able to save during the pandemic.

Back-and-forth between May and board members drew out some of the different motivations for resumption of front-door passenger boarding and fare collection.

One motivation is that the need for a rear-door boarding protocol is diminishing—as confirmed COVID-19 case numbers decrease, and the percentage of the vaccinated population increases.

Another motivation is to restore the revenue stream from fares. As board member Doug Horn put it, “I do think that the revenue piece is important to understand.” Horn said he is reluctant to vote “to not collect money” every month, as the board has been doing.

The potential revenue that would be gained by resumption of fare collection on buses is affected by the fact that IU affiliates board buses without paying a fare anyway, and by the fact that ridership is severely down.

Current ridership during the pandemic is about one-fifth what it otherwise would be. In February this year, 66,607 rides were taken in 2021, which is just 18 percent of the 364,501 rides taken in February 2020.

Asked to estimate the daily fare revenue that could be collected with current ridership levels, May pegged that number at around $200 a day.

Board members Kent McDaniel and James McLary questioned whether it would cost more to collect the fares than it would yield in revenue.

Horn countered by asking that staff prepare an analysis: “If the staff can put together a scenario that makes that a ridiculous objective…, then then let’s not spend any more time on it.”

Horn also said he thinks it’s important for the public to understand that public bus service has a value, and that understanding could come from collecting fares: “I do think our service has value. I think we need to give it value. If we’re not ‘making money’ at least we’re allowing the public to realize that this does have a value.”

Board member Marilyn Hartman picked up on May’s report about the drivers union recommendation, prefacing her remarks with an allusion to the December 2020 and January 2021 clearances of a homeless encampment from Seminary Park. “Maybe that’s not a politically correct discussion, given what we’ve seen with the city and the parks and all of that,” she said.

Hartman continued, “But I think that it also impacts those individuals who otherwise would be wanting to ride the bus, when your population that’s riding may have a significantly larger number of individuals who are just there because they’re wanting to have a place to sit for a period of time.”

Hartman concluded that the board should get more input from the bus drivers, and how they see the impact of resuming fare collection.

Asked by The Square Beacon on Wednesday about the nature of the difficulties posed on public buses by those experiencing homelessness, May gave a range of examples, including intoxicated people boarding buses and displaying aggressive behavior towards drivers and other passengers.

Also contributing to difficult situations on buses for drivers, May said, is an unwillingness of some people experiencing homelessness to wear masks on the bus. A recent executive order from President Joe Biden, requiring the wearing of masks on public transportation, means that drivers now have to be strict about mask compliance.

How is mask compliance enforced? May said, “Of course, we distribute masks on the bus to people who don’t have one.” After giving someone a mask, May said, “We ask them to wear it. And if they refuse, we ask them to leave the bus. And if they still refuse, we send the supervisor to the scene. And if they still refuse, at that point we call the police.”

May put the issue in the context of mental health, or addiction issues that some in the homeless community have, and how that impacts the transit system and the people who use the transit system. “We want to be compassionate and understanding,” May said. He added, “We understand this isn’t a local issue, it’s a national issue. And we as a country need to come up with good solutions to these issues.”

May concluded, “I think there are better solutions than using public transportation as shelter.”

About the idea that collection of fares would help prevent disruptive homeless people from riding the bus, Beacon, Inc.’s Gilmore said, “Within the homeless population, there are some people who behave in ways that are sometimes difficult to manage and handle—and there’s a lot of people who don’t. When we actively create policies that mitigate the problems of individuals and blame it on a group, we’re actually behaving in a discriminatory way.”

Gilmore praised BT’s decision to compensate for the pandemic-related closure of its downtown transit center lobby, by placing portable restrooms in the bus canopy area. BT was the only organization he knew of that had done that during the pandemic. “I actually think they deserve credit for that, because they were, to my knowledge, the only public restroom that was open in the city, besides ours,” Gilmore said.

May told the board that it would take about six weeks to prepare for resumption of fare collection, after a board decision to do it. That means an April decision would work for a June 1 resumption of fare collection, May said.

May had been targeting July 1, based on a recent speech given by President Joe Biden. One of Biden’s talking points was the goal to have a vaccine available to all adults by May 1—about six weeks from now. Another other point from Biden’s speech, cited by general manager May, was the real possibility that friends and family could gather by as early as July 4, to celebrate Independence Day.

Also factoring into the mix for resuming BT’s normal bus operation protocols is the possible implementation this year of new optimized routes that were due to be rolled out in fall 2020. The BT board reached a decision early in the pandemic to delay that rollout.

May’s planned retirement later this year is one consideration for an attempted rollout of the new routes. May had originally planned to retire in 2020, but agreed to stay on for an extra year.

Besides fare collection, another hurdle that needs to be cleared for resumption of normal bus operations and the rollout of new, optimized routes, is the hiring of additional drivers.

May told the board that 10 additional part-time drivers would get BT back to normal full-service levels in the fall. To implement the service improvements would require an additional part-time driver for a total of 11.

May told the board about the prospects of hiring that many drivers: “We haven’t had much success in our recruiting efforts. But in talking with staff, we would like to push forward for another 30 days and see what the market labor market brings to us.”

May said April’s board meeting would probably be the “drop dead” date for making a decision about going forward in late August with the service changes.