Push for new Bloomington Transit countywide service could come from old rural transit rules

Recent public conversations about extending Bloomington Transit service outside the city boundaries have focused on the western edge of town.

In September 2022, Bloomington’s city council passed a resolution supporting the idea of extending public bus service out to Daniels Way, to serve Ivy Tech, Cook Medical, and other employers.

The council’s resolution came with a caveat requiring an interlocal agreement between Monroe County government and Bloomington about funding the additional service.

The council’s resolution was not merely symbolic. Under state law, it’s the city council that has to approve the extension of bus service outside the city boundaries.

But now, BT is thinking about a bigger kind of expansion than just the western end of the east-west corridor.

In his written report to the BT board last week, general manager John Connell put it like this: “BPTC’s preferred approach to service area expansion would include the entire county.”

BPTC is the acronym for BT’s legal name—Bloomington Public Transportation Corporation.

Already serving the part of Monroe County that is not covered by BT buses is Rural Transit, which is a program of Area 10 Agency on Aging.

Rural Transit serves a four-county area. From north to south, those counties are: Putnam, Owen, Monroe, and Lawrence. The type of service Rural Transit provides is called demand-response—passengers set up a trip in advance, as opposed to boarding a bus that runs a fixed route.

But according to Area 10 executive director Chris Myers, starting on Jan. 1, 2024, Rural Transit will be able to make just some of the trips that it has provided for the last 35 years.

To continue receiving its federal funding, Rural Transit will have to eliminate some of the trips it has provided in the past.

Currently, for example, someone who lives in Ellettsville, who wants to be picked up by Rural Transit to be taken to Walmart on Bloomington’s west side, can go ahead and schedule that trip.

After Jan. 1, 2024, that’s not a trip Rural Transit can make.

Why not?

Currently, Rural Transit receives funds through the Section 5311 FTA (Federal Transit Administration) non-urbanized area formula grant program. The money is passed through from the feds to Rural Transit by INDOT (Indiana Department of Transportation).

Up to now, Rural Transit has provided only trips between points where at least one of the two locations is outside Bloomington. That includes trips where both points are outside Bloomington. If both the origin and destination are inside the city of Bloomington, that’s not a trip Rural Transit currently makes.

Rural Transit’s current trip policy approximates the INDOT guidance for receiving Section 5311 funding, but does not match it perfectly. INDOT’s manual does not define possible trips in terms of political boundaries. Instead, it uses “urban areas” as defined by the US Census Bureau.

Maps for urban areas are generated by the Census Bureau every 10 years. An urban area is defined in terms of population numbers, density and land use. Generally, an urban area can include  more area than just the political boundaries of a city.

Here’s how the 2016 INDOT manual on Section 5311 funding sets out the policy against making a trip where an urban area includes both the origin and the destination:

Service may include transportation to and from urbanized areas. However, such services should not include both pick-up and discharge operations within the urbanized area, particularly if the urbanized area is served by public transit.

In a telephone interview, Meyer told The B Square that in the past, INDOT has not enforced that regulation strictly in terms of urban areas. But she has been notified that starting Jan. 1, 2024 it will be the urban areas that count, not the political boundaries.

Currently, Rural Transit offers an Ellettsville-to-Walmart trip, because neither location is inside Bloomington. But Ellettsville is a part of Monroe County’s urban area. So is Walmart. That means an Ellettsville-to-Walmart trip won’t be possible for Rural Transit starting Jan. 1 next year.

Meyer told The B Square her biggest concern is making sure that the passengers continue to get transportation services they need, even if it’s not Rural Transit that is giving them their rides. Meyer said, “I know these people. I’ve been on buses with these people and I know their faces.” She added, “These people need the transportation services. We need to make sure that they get it.”

Meyer’s preferred solution would be for BT to contract with Rural Transit for the trips, at least for the short term. But she doesn’t think that’s the approach that will be taken. Instead, BT will be looking to partner with Monroe County government, the town of Ellettsville, and others, to help fund its own service.

But to operate outside of the city limits—even with its BT Access paratransit service—BT would need to get approval from Bloomington’s city council.

It is BT Access vehicles and drivers that would absorb the extra demand from trips that Rural Transit now offers. At this past Tuesday’s BT board meeting, Connell estimated that BT would need to absorb between 30 and 35 trips a day.

About the feasibility of taking on that many additional trips. Connell said, “We have the operational capacity, but not the legal capacity.”

Myers gave The B Square figures from a six-month study done between April and September of 2022. During that time Rural Transit made 4,000 trips with both origin and destination in the urban area, Myers said. Those 4,000 trips accounted for about 60 percent of all Monroe County trips made by Rural Transit.

Based on that six-month study, if BT absorbs just the urban-area-to-urban-area trips, that would work out to around 22 trips a day.

At last Tuesday’s board meeting, Connell pointed out that BT’s own federal funding, which comes through the Section 5307 formula program, gets a boost from the urban area population.

That means people who live in Monroe County’s urban area, but outside Bloomington city limits, help generate federal dollars for Bloomington Transit because of where they live—inside an urban area. But they do not currently get the benefit of Bloomington Transit service.

According to Connell, Monroe County’s GIS division provided a breakdown of population in the county’s urban area, but outside the city of Bloomington. Connell reported that about 25 percent of the urban area population was outside of Bloomington.

Connell reported that in 2022, BT’s share of the Section 5307 funds was $4.1 million.

Based on his recent conversations with Bloomington mayor John Hamilton, Connell said at last Tuesday’s board meeting, he thinks the mayor supports expansion outside the city limits along the east-west 3rd Street corridor, and could be open to a countywide service area, if the funding can be negotiated.

Connell said a big concern is to make sure that city residents don’t subsidize service outside the city limits.

Bloomington has some annexations of territory that are currently subject to pending litigation. If and when that pending litigation is completed, and if it’s wrapped up in the city’s favor, some of the jurisdictional funding issues will basically be resolved. The western end of the east-west corridor would be included inside the city boundaries, as a part of the pending annexations. That means it will automatically be a legal part of BT’s service area.

Final hearings are currently on the calendar in mid-November for both sets of annexation litigation. Theoretically, the question of annexation could be answered by the end of this year, or early in 2024.

But annexation will not resolve the question of service between Ellettsville and anywhere else in the urban area near Bloomington.

If Rural Transit is not allowed to provide that kind of service, due to Section 5311 constraints, and if BT does not want to contract with Rural Transit to provide the service, then it looks like it will fall to BT to fill the gap.

Bloomington’s city council will not be taking up the legal issue at least until July 26, which is the date of its next regular meeting.