Transit notebook: Snowstorm debrief, deal OK’d with IU, ridership still down, strategic plan moves forward

Bloomington Transit drivers got some recognition from general manager John Connell at the five-member board’s regular monthly meeting on Tuesday night.

About the performance of drivers during the snowstorm and its aftermath on Feb. 3 and Feb. 4, Connell said, “I think our drivers did an incredible job. They had the toughest challenge.”

The debriefing on how things went during the snow was one of several topics BT staff reported to the board at their meeting.

One of the main business items appearing on the agenda was the annual financial agreement with Indiana University to allow affiliates of the school—students, faculty and staff—to board buses without paying a fare. That had been put off from the previous month’s meeting, because IU had not yet agreed to terms.

The agreement approved by BT’s board on Tuesday night reflects a 2.5% increase—which is half the 5-percent increase that BT was looking for from IU.

In pre-pandemic times, about 70 percent of ridership came from IU affiliates.

Ridership on fixed routes is still down compared to pre-pandemic times. For January this year, the 152,000 fixed route rides were three times the number given in January 2021, but about half the number in January 2020. That was was the next-to-last month before the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt.

Snow schedule

Buses were running for both days of the recent snowstorm.

General manager John Connell told the board that Friday (Feb. 4) was a better day than Thursday (Feb. 3) for ridership—twice as good, in fact—even though less service was provided by BT. On Friday, BT used its normal Saturday schedule, which has reduced hours compared to weekdays.

Connell put it like this: “As much as we want to be out there running, the question is, if everything is shutting down around us, who’s going to be riding?”

During the snowstorm on Thursday, BT ran 265.5 hours of bus service and provided 1,132 passenger trips, at a cost per ride of $17.34. On Friday, BT ran just 142 hours of service, but made 2,195 passenger trips, which translated to a cost of about $4.78 per ride.

Indiana University bus service agreement

At the BT board’s meeting in January, no vote was taken on the agreement under which BT provides service to IU affiliates without requiring them to pay a fare on boarding.

At that point, BT had proposed to IU 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.

At January’s meeting, 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.

The agreement approved by the board on Tuesday night included an increase of just 2.5 percent, raising the monthly fee to $90,812. That translates to a little over $1 million a year.

The amount paid by the university could be less, if BT doesn’t provide all the scheduled service on the so-called “campus routes”— Route 6, Route 7 and Route 9. The $90,812 figure gets multiplied by the percentage of the scheduled service that is actually provided.

During the pandemic and even now, BT is not necessarily able to provide all of its scheduled service. That’s because of the driver shortage. BT lost another driver in January, bringing the total number of vacant driver positions to 12.

The $90,812 figure is meant to cover student trips. A separate clause in the contract covers faculty and staff. Under the contract, IU will pay BUT for faculty/staff rides at the rate of $0.75 per trip. The regular fare for a BT bus is $1 per trip. Under the arrangement, the total paid for faculty/staff trips for the first half of 2022 can’t exceed $65,000.

Also covered under the arrangement are the cleaning, fueling and washing of buses in the IU Campus Bus fleet. The university and BT share a bus storage facility at Grimes Lane. Under the contract approved by BT’s board on Tuesday night, the cleaning and fueling fee is increasing by 2.5% from $45,825 to $46,971.

Strategic plan for BT

At Tuesday’s board meeting, BT general manager John Connell sketched out a timeline for the issuance of a request for proposals (RFP) in connection with a strategic plan for Bloomington Transit. The creation of such a strategic plan is something that new board president James McLary has made a goal.

At January’s board meeting, Connell said he thought it would be best to hire a consultant to help develop the strategic plan, by issuing an RFP. That’s what BT is now doing.

Connell called his timeline for the RFP “aggressive”:

  • Advertisement and issue date: 2022-02-28
  • Clarifications due date: 2022-03-11
  • Addendum responses due: 2022-03-30
  • Award date: 2022-04-19

Connell told the board he had a verbal assurance from the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that the funding for a strategic plan would be forthcoming. McLary and other board members said they wanted written confirmation of a commitment from the MPO to fund the strategic plan, before the RFP is issued.

Connell indicated he’d get the funding commitment reduced to writing.

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