Is it possible that someday everyone waiting at a public bus stop in Bloomington could climb aboard without having to pay a fare?
Could Bloomington’s public buses ever follow routes that go outside the city limits, if they serve the interests of Bloomington residents?
Will Indiana University and Bloomington Transit (BT) ever extend their cooperative arrangements to a point where there’s just one public bus system in town?
Those are some of the questions that BT’s new board president James McLary would like to address in a strategic plan that the public transit corporation is developing. McLary spoke about BT’s strategic plan in a late December interview with The B Square.
The strategic plan will have to incorporate the impact of the pandemic on ridership. In November 2021, BT ridership on fixed routes was about half what it was in pre-pandemic times.
Appearing on the Bloomington Transit board’s Jan. 18 meeting agenda is an item under old business labeled “Development of a Strategic Plan for Bloomington Transit.” That’s just a discussion item.
McLary’s election as the board’s president for 2022 came at the board’s Dec. 21 meeting. The 3–2 tally on the vote reflected the contentious character of the choice.
It’s an indicator that the board might not necessarily be in perfect alignment on elements of the strategic plan that it will be developing this year.
McLary’s hopes for the strategic plan
The idea of allowing everyone to ride BT buses without paying a fare to board is not new. It’s a question that routinely comes up in the fall at budget time when BT presents its proposed annual expenditures to the city council.
During deliberations in August 2020 about the 2021 budget, Bloomington city councilmember Kate Rosenbarger asked BT’s then-general manager Lew May, if there were any plans to continue with a fare-free approach, even after the pandemic. (John Connell has been serving as BT’s general manager since October 2021.)
On that occasion, May pointed to a couple of considerations. One is the federal ADA requirement to offer paratransit service (BT Access) to the disability community, at no more than twice the price of a fare on a fixed route bus.
That means if regular fixed-route bus service were fare-free, BT Access would also need to be fare-free, May said at the time. The cost for every BT Access trip is somewhere between $15 and $20 for every trip, May said. The current $2 fare controls the demand for the service, May said. If the $2 fare were eliminated, it could allow for unchecked demand. That could lead to a considerable total cost increase, May said.
An additional consideration, May told Rosenbarger on that occasion, is the annual contribution that Indiana University makes to BT, to cover the fares of its students, faculty and staff. IU affiliates board by showing their IU credential. “The university is contributing over $1 million to pay for student fares, and they’re contributing more than $100,000 to pay for employee fares. If we go fare-free, we would need the university to continue that contribution,” May said.
In pre-pandemic times, the annual amount of fare revenue collected from non-university-affiliated riders was around $600,000.
BT has an item in its current capital budget that would spend around $1.5 million on a new farebox system.
Asked by The B Square in late December 2021 about fare-free rides as a possible element of the BT strategic plan, McLary pointed to the capital budget with its planned expenditure on new fareboxes.
McLary doesn’t question the need for a new fare collection system—if BT is going to continue to collect fares. “The [farebox system] that we have is pretty antiquated, not supported by the manufacturer, and so we’re going to have to replace it,” McLary said.
“Why are we spending a million and a half dollars to collect fares when the amount of fares we get is relatively small?” McLary asked.
Will fare free rides be in the strategic plan? McLary’s answer: “I can’t say, because I can’t speak for the whole board.
But McClary thinks the fare-free option needs to be considered.
One of the challenges of converting BT buses to fare-free operation is identifying a recurring revenue replacement for the limited amount of fares that BT does collect. If Indiana University were to balk at making a roughly $1 million payment to cover the rides of its affiliates, that could mean $1.5 million a year in a new revenue stream.
To make up the shortfall, McLary thinks the city of Bloomington is a potential source of revenue. McLary said, “We get money from different sources, but the city per se doesn’t put money into it.” It’s a question for the strategic plan, he said: “How do we involve the city?”
Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, is likely to ask the city council to approve an increase in the countywide local income tax sometime in 2022. That would be one possible source the city could tap to fund a fare-free approach to public buses.
Besides the financial angle, there’s also a geographic impact that the city of Bloomington has on BT routes. The boundaries of BT service are set in the 1982 ordinance that established Bloomington Transit. Under Bloomington’s ordinance, the service boundaries have to be “coterminous with the boundaries of the city of Bloomington.”
The city code is something that could be changed by Bloomington’s city council—to allow service to employment or educational centers just outside the city limits, like Cook Medical, or Ivy Tech.
But McLary told The B Square there’s some question about whether extending service outside the city boundaries might be prevented by state law. Still, it’s something that needs to be explored, he said.
What the landscape looks like when the dust settles after Bloomington’s annexations will also factor into the service boundaries issue, McLary said.
About the idea that IU’s campus bus system and BT could be merged into a single system, McLary said, “Let me say that there is a fairly strong sentiment from some of the board members, that we should try to put the two systems together.”
McLary added, “And I’m telling you, that will be in the strategic plan at some point. I don’t know where it will fit.”
McLary also indicated the merging of the two systems would not likely come about quickly. He based that on his experience managing Madison, Wisconsin’s bus system in the 1970s. The strategic planning for a combination of campus and city buses started in 1975, but did not happen until 1984, he said.
Some of the issues connected to the BT strategic plan could get some initial discussion beyond the specific agenda item on that topic.
Also on the BT board’s Tuesday meeting agenda this week is the annual inter-local cooperation agreement between BT and Indiana University.
Dec. 16, 2021 board elections
At the board’s Dec. 16 meeting, the annual vote to elect James McLary as board chair, instead of keeping Nancy Obermeyer in that spot, was 3–2 on the five-member board.
Voting for James McLary were: McLary, Doug Horn, and Marilyn Hartman. Voting against McLary as president were Obermeyer and Kent McDaniel.
When the item on election of officers was reached on the meeting agenda, Obermeyer, who was presiding over the meeting, gave an immediate indication that it might not be a perfunctory vote.
Obermeyer led off by saying, “I understand that James has been talking with all the other board members about possibly becoming chair. So it’d have been nice, if he had talked to me as well.”
McLary responded by saying, “But I think Marilyn [Hartman], talked to you.” Obermeyer replied, “[Hartman] didn’t raise that specifically.” McLary responded: “I apologize, then.”
Hartman said she thought she’d talked to Obermeyer about McLary becoming chair. Hartman then made the motion to make McLary chair, McDaniel vice chair, Doug Horn treasurer and Obermeyer secretary.
During deliberations on the motion, McLary apologized again for not talking to Obermeyer before the meeting. “I think [Obermeyer] has done a fine job. And I apologize, I didn’t reach out to you.”
Obermeyer responded by saying it was the second time it had happened. She continued, “Let me just be blunt about it: It looks sexist.” Obermeyer added, “If you want to be the chair, and you get your votes, I’m cool with that.”
Obermeyer later said she was not unhappy about stepping down from the chair’s roll, but rather about the approach McLary had taken. “That’s not the issue, just so you know, it’s the way it was done.”
The election of board officers was followed by the BT board’s appointment to the Bloomington-Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) policy committee.
That vote was also split 3–2—in favor of making Doug Horn the BT board representative to that group, instead of Kent McDaniel.
During deliberations, McDaniel responded to a question from McLary about his length of service on the MPO policy committee by saying it had been well over 20 years.
Before McLary made the motion to appoint Horn to the MPO policy committee, he told McDaniel, “I, as the chair, would like to look for a little bit different direction. Not that you’ve done a bad job—I think you’ve done a fine job.”
Responding to McLary’s remark about a “different direction,” McDaniel wondered, “Just where are we headed right now?”
McLary responded in terms of the transition in the general manager’s position. John Connell was the board’s pick to replace long-time general manager Lew May, who retired at the end of September 2021. McLary said, “I think [Connell] is approaching things a little bit differently than the way Lew approached them.”
McDaniel said that it was important to have someone with some institutional memory serving on the MPO policy committee.
When Hartman pointed out to McDaniel that the MPO policy committee’s meetings are public and that anyone can provide input, McDaniel replied, “Well, that’s pretty lame, Marilyn.”
About the proposed swapping out of McDaniel for Horn, Obermeyer said, “Once again, to be blunt, Kent and I have been on this board for quite a long time. And we have never seen sort of this animosity that we’re experiencing this evening.” She called it an “unusual situation.”
Hartman said she did not have any animus towards other board members, but said, “I have opinions about what I’d like to see the direction of the board to go. And I do have an opinion about having a slightly different management.”
Obermeyer said he had concerns about McLary trying to micromanage the staff. McLary responded by saying, “I’m not a micromanager. I can assure you, though, I’m looking more at the policy level and the higher level.”
Later, towards the end of the meeting, McDaniel responded to McLary’s remarks about micromanaging. “[McLary] mentioned on at least three occasions tonight, he said he’s not a micromanager. I disagree with that, I think he very much is a micromanager,” McDaniel said.
Both McDaniel and McLary have professional experience in the field of transportation. A dozen years ago, McDaniel served as director of Indiana University’s transportation services. In the 1970s, McLary managed the public transportation system in Madison, Wisconsin.
McDaniel also expressed a general disappointment about the way things had gone that night. “I’m very disappointed in the atmosphere of our board meeting tonight.” He added, “One of the things that I always enjoyed so much about Bloomington Transit is that we were always on the same side. We did things together.” Things were only rarely controversial, McDaniel said.
McDaniel said because of the severe disagreements on the board that night, he sympathizes with the staff. “[Staff] are going to have to deal with a different kind of a board,” McDaniel said.
The BT board is required to be partisan balanced—no more than three of the five spots can be members of the same political party. McDaniel, Obermeyer, and Hartman are Democrats. Horn and McLary are Republicans.
So the 3–2 split on votes at the December 2021 board meeting was not along strictly party lines—one Democrat and two Republicans made up the three-vote majority.
The partisan balancing requirement for the BT board led to the appointment of Doug Horn in November of 2020. The Bloomington city council did not fill the vacancy at the time in a timely way, which opened the door for the chair of the Monroe County GOP to make the appointment instead.