Bloomington Transit board talks strategic plan, new standard for judging ridership

At its monthly meeting on Tuesday, the five-member Bloomington Transit board reached a consensus that a consultant should be hired to help the public bus agency develop a five-to-seven-year strategic plan.

The new strategic plan will incorporate the new reality of diminished ridership, which continues to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2021, 115,504 rides were given on BT’s fixed-route buses. That’s about twice the number of rides in December 2020. But it’s less than half the number of rides in December 2019.

When he reported out the monthly ridership numbers from December, BT’s planning and special projects manager Zac Hunec told the board: “We’re kind of shifting away from this mode of comparing our statistics to quote unquote, normal times.” Hunec added, “I think we’ve all kind of recognized this is the new normal. When we start looking at statistics, we’ll just be comparing it to the previous year.”

The next step on the strategic plan is to put together a request for proposals for potential consulting firms.

BT’s general manager John Connell told the board, “I’m going to recommend, given the significance of this type of endeavor, that the board consider soliciting requests for proposals, and selecting a firm to assist in the process.” Connell added, “This is going to be a major undertaking.” Responding to a board question, Connnell gave $50,000 as a ballpark number for the cost of the consultant.

On Tuesday, the board put off a vote on two significant agenda items. One delayed item was the approval of the annual interlocal agreement with Indiana University—because IU has not yet agreed to BT’s proposed terms. That’s the agreement under which IU pays BT a monthly fee to allow its affiliates—students, faculty and staff—to ride BT buses without paying a fare to board.

The other postponed item was the agreement with Collegiate Development Group (CDG) for the provision of bus service to its student-oriented housing development on North Walnut Street, called The Verve.

An agreement between CDG and BT for a new route serving the housing complex was one of the conditions of the planned unit development (PUD) approved by Bloomington’s city council in mid-September of 2019.

BT general manager John Connell told the board that CDG is working with the city of Bloomington’s legal department to make sure that they meet requirements that the city council set forth in its conditional approval of the PUD.

BT’s proposal to IU, which is described in the board’s meeting information packet, includes a maximum monthly fee increase from $88,597 to $93,026.85. That 5-percent increase is consistent with the 5% increase in bus driver wages, which took effect at the start of the year.

BT board member Kent McDaniel, who formerly served as the director of IU’s transportation services, said he predicted IU would not accept a 5-percent increase. That’s based on the way the student transportation fee works, he said. If the student fee increases only by 2 percent, and IU pays BT 5 percent more, that would mean IU could offer less of its own campus bus service, which is also funded by the student fee. “I expect we’re going to have some difficulties in negotiations,” McDaniel said.

A driver shortage continues to impact BT. The monthly report on that topic showed one new hire in December compared to three departures, which leaves BT with 11 driver vacancies.

At Tuesday’s meeting, general manager John Connell received a positive quarterly performance review from the two board members who conducted it—Nancy Obermeyer and Kent McDaniel. Obermeyer read aloud the evaluation. The performance review wrapped up like this: “The combination of a smooth transition, successful union negotiations, efforts to promote a sense of cooperation with Bloomington Transit staff and all departments, and preparing a list of goals for future action are clear evidence of Mr. Connell’s excellent performance.”

Connell took over from Lew May, who retired at the end of September 2021.