Bloomington Transit will receive at least $3.8 million a year for the next five years from the city of Bloomington, under an interlocal agreement approved by BT’s five-member board at its final meeting of the year, on Dec. 20.
The agreement still needs to win approval from Bloomington’s city council.
The deal is expected to appear on a city council meeting agenda sometime in January, based on remarks from BT general manager John Connell at last week’s board meeting.
The money is coming from the increase to the local income tax that was approved by the city council in May of 2022.
The big initiative that the money is supposed to help fund is an east-west crosstown express route.
Some other specific initiatives that the money is supposed to pay for include: implementation of Sunday service in the first quarter of 2023; enhancement of the paratransit microtransit services; increasing frequency of weekday service; and development of a ridership subsidy program.
The new transit initiatives come as BT is clawing back ridership on its regular fixed route service, after a big drop when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.
At last week’s meeting, Connell compared the $3.8 million a year to “seed money” for the east-west route, even if the city’s planned annual cash transfer might cover most of the cost of some of the other initiatives.
Connell told the board that early in 2023 he would be reaching out to the city of Bloomington to convene a “stakeholder meeting” about the east-west route, saying “this is much bigger than just Bloomington Transit.”
As one example, there would be opportunities for transit-oriented development, Connell said, which would mean getting input about how property can be developed along the route to complement the east-west corridor.
Some of the board discussion included the idea of improvements to city infrastructure along the corridor, potentially to create dedicated lanes for buses. Infrastructure improvements would make up a big part of the cost to implement the east-west express route.
A first step, Connell said, a feasibility study for the route would need to be completed. Once the feasibility study is done, and letters of support have been drafted from all the public and private players, BT would then be in a position “to go after the big, big bucks.” By “big bucks” Connell meant federal grants, like the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.
If Bloomington Transit could win a $30-million grant to create a bus-rapid transit (BRT) service or a modified version of BRT, that would mean a commitment for 25 years or longer, Connell said.
Ridership on BT’s fixed route buses continues to show gains each month compared to the same month a year ago. In November this year, 209,544 rides were taken on BT fixed-route buses. That’s 27 percent more rides than in November 2021.
Through the first 11 months of 2022, BT’s total of 1.79 million rides is about 50 percent better than in 2021. The improvement this year over last was much greater in the first five months of the year.
But ridership is still way down compared to the most recent full pre-pandemic year of 2019. Compared to November of 2019, the numbers for 2022 are down by 33 percent. Compared to the first 11 months of 2019, the numbers for 2022 are down by about 38 percent.
Based on the stats in the BT board’s meeting information packet, about 9 percent of BT’s fixed route ridership in November 2022 came from two new routes that are paid for by the developers of student-oriented housing complexes—one on North Walnut (The Verve) and the other on West 17th (Atlas).
As a fixed route, Route 8 on the east side of town was discontinued in August. So no rides are recorded for November this year for Route 8. In November 2021, riders took 2,063 trips on Route 8.
To replace the Route 8 fixed-route service, BT has provided a subsidized voucher program through the transportation network companies Uber and Lyft, which is branded as Eastside On-Demand. Riders still pay a $1 fare, with the rest of the cost covered by BT.
In public transportation circles, this kind of on-demand approach is called “microtransit.”
Based on the numbers in the BT board’s meeting information packet, in November 2022, BT riders used 1,115 Uber or Lyft vouchers for Eastside On-Demand, which is a little over half the number of fixed-route rides for Route 8 in the same period last year.
In 2023, BT is looking to review its current pilot for the use of microtransit, which BT also deploys as a replacement for late-night service for several fixed routes that do not serve the Indiana University campus. In November 2022, a total of 3,844 trips were taken on the BT Late Nite service.
One hurdle to clear, if BT tries to staff the on-demand microtransit service with its own employees, is the ongoing challenge of hiring drivers. In November this year, BT was not able to hire any new fixed-route drivers and lost one, leaving 10 vacancies.