Bloomington Transit notebook: Sunday service starts March 26, fare collection systems to get a look

Sunday public bus service will get a boost from Bloomington Transit (BT) starting on March 26.

Initially passengers won’t have to pay a fare to board on Sundays.

There’s currently some Sunday service on Route 6 and Route 9.

But Sunday service for at least a few more routes will be added starting on the last Sunday of March. ​​

At its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, planning and special projects manager Zac Huneck told the BT board that additional Sunday routes will include: Route 3 East; Route 3 West; Route 2 West; and Route 2 South.

The added Sunday routes will run once an hour. The choice of routes to be added was based in part on driver availability, but also on the ridership of the routes for the days when service is currently offered, Huneck said.

In the 2023 BT budget, $300,000 was included specifically to add Sunday service sometime in the first quarter of this year.

To pay for the service, BT is using part the additional local income tax (LIT) revenue that it’s receiving from the city of Bloomington, under a 5-year agreement that transfers at least $3.8 million annually to BT.

The introduction of the Sunday service is something that has long been requested by some passengers. BT general manager John Connell said on Tuesday that if it turns out that there’s no ridership, the service won’t continue. But if some routes prove to be more popular than others, the frequency on the more popular routes could be increased, while the service on less popular routes could be cut back, he said.

Initially, all the Sunday service that BT offers is planned to be fare free, to get passengers accustomed to the service.

But fare free service for BT systemwide on all days does not seem likely, given that BT is considering a major upgrade its current fareboxes, to allow for more flexible, cashless transactions.

Still, the kind of fareboxes that are available, and the associated costs for collection, is something that could get at least some additional study.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, board president James McLary noted that BT’s strategic plan consultant, Foursquare ITP, had delivered the plan under budget. So McLary wants to consider the possibility of asking Foursquare to use the leftover money to study fare collection systems.

BT is looking at upgrading its farebox system at a cost of around $1.5 million. In pre-pandemic times, the amount of fares collected when passengers board was around $600,000 a year.  That does not include the lump sum amount paid by Indiana University to cover the cost of rides for students, faculty and staff.

McClary said on Tuesday, “You’re looking at a million and a half dollars, and I think we need something—I’m just not sure what it is.”

When BT adopted a fare-free policy during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was motivated by a desire to allow rear-door boarding, to minimize interactions between drivers and passengers and thereby reduce disease transmission.  Rear-door boarding meant no collection of fares, because the fareboxes are located at the front door.

Bus drivers had a strong objection to continuing fare-free boarding after the pandemic subsided. They had to contend with an increased number of disruptions caused by passengers who would board buses just to pass the time, and refuse to wear a face mask, as required by the Federal Transit Authority at the time. 

BT’s fixed-route ridership continues to rebound after plummeting during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 205,000 fixed route rides taken in January this year reflects a 35-percent increase over January 2022.

But that is still just 70 percent of the 291,000 rides taken in January 2019, which is the most recent pre-pandemic January total.