Bloomington public buses skipping scheduled runs due to driver shortage

On Monday morning, Bloomington Transit’s Twitter feed announced that service along the Route 6 Limited and the Route 9 Limited would be cut during specific times during the day.

A tweet sent at 8:02 a.m. said, “There will be no 6 Limited this morning and no 9 Limited this evening. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

The first tweet was followed by another one at 8:26 a.m. clarifying the times when those routes would be curtailed: “The 6 Limited will resume at 1:10 today. 9 Limited will end at 2:30.”

BT has confirmed to The B Square the connection between the skipped routes on Monday and BT’s current driver shortage.

Based on discussion at the BT board’s most recent meeting, Bloomington’s regular public bus staffing is short 12 drivers.

That’s the bare minimum needed to cover the increased service hours that will start towards the end of August when Indiana University classes resume. In non-pandemic times, university affiliates—students, faculty and staff—make up about 70 percent of BT fixed route ridership.

In April, the board green-lighted a $3,000 hiring incentive for new drivers. A recent two-day hiring fair generated no applicants.

Indiana University operates its own campus bus system, but BT’s routes are configured to provide a lot of service to the campus. What does that mean for Indiana University students who are expecting the public bus to get them to their classes?

Planning and special projects manager Zac Huneck wrote in an email to The B Square that “[I]n our messaging with IU this year, we are asking riders to be prepared for service disruptions and to plan accordingly.” That means students should “aim to get to campus earlier to avoid missing classes,” Huneck wrote.

The bus service that has been skipped recently includes: Route 1, Route 6L, Route 9L and Route 6 last Friday; and Route 6L last Wednesday.

When forced to choose between reducing frequency on an existing corridor or reducing geographic coverage, Huneck indicated that BT will choose to reduce frequency.

That looks like it squares up with the routes that have been skipped so far. Route 9L is supposed to complement routes 3 and 9 along 3rd St, Atwater, and the College Mall area. Route 6L runs a shorter portion of Route 6, between North Rogers and Reserve on 3rd Street.

Huneck told The B Square that BT will need to come up with a more robust way of notifying riders about skipped service than social media and its real-time bus locator app called Doublemap.

It’s not clear if BT could at some point this fall be forced to skip routes that provide service to non-students who depend on public transit for their critical transportation needs.

The acuteness of the driver shortage comes at the end of BT’s contract with its driver’s union. The collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME Local 613 runs just through the end of the year.

The draft budget presented last month to BT’s board by outgoing general manager Lew May calls for a 3-percent increase in wages.

May’s contract runs through the end of September at which point he will be retiring, after two decades of service. It’s expected the BT board will negotiate some period of overlap for the transition to the next general manager, John Connell, who was picked last month as May’s successor.

Connell is currently the operations manager for Greater Lafayette Public Transportation Corporation.

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