Bloomington Transit looks to city council for legal authority to serve whole county

Bloomington Transit (BT) wants to offer public transportation service anywhere in Monroe County.

In order to offer service outside the city boundaries, BT would need approval from Bloomington’s city council.

A request to Bloomington’s city council to enact such an ordinance won unanimous approval from BT’s five-member board at its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The extension of service outside of Bloomington’s boundary has for a while been a part of BT’s long-term vision.  And running buses outside Bloomington is an explicit part of BT’s strategic plan, which was adopted at the start of the year.

Last September, Bloomington’s city council already gave a nod to BT along these lines, when it passed a symbolic resolution indicating support for BT to extend service past the western city boundary to Daniels Way. Public transportation to that area would serve a major educational center in Ivy Tech, and a major employment center in Cook Medical.

But the precise timing of BT’s current interest in providing service anywhere in Monroe County can be analyzed as less about strategic planning and more about dealing with a crisis—involving a looming loss of service for some passengers who live outside the city limits.

Rural Transit is a public transit agency serving the area outside of Bloomington. It is a program of Area 10 Agency on Aging.

But starting Jan. 1, 2024, Rural Transit will no longer be allowed to give rides to passengers in certain parts of the unincorporated part of Monroe County.

It is the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) that has now decided to strictly enforce a rule that was already on the books: Rural Transit cannot give rides between two points, if both points are inside what the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) defines as an urban area.

The rule applies to Rural Transit, because it 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).

Rural Transit’s current trip policy approximates the INDOT guidance for receiving Section 5311 funding, but does not match it perfectly.

Currently Rural Transit provides trips only 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.

But 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. The urban areas in Monroe County cover more territory than just the city of Bloomington. Now that urban areas will define the part of the county where Rural Transit cannot operate, there’s less area where Rural Transit will be able to provide service.

That means there will be several passengers who rely on Rural Transit’s service, but can’t be served by Rural Transit starting Jan. 1, 2024.

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

At Tuesday’s board meeting, general manager John Connell said BT has the operational capacity to absorb between 30 and 35 trips a day. It is BT Access vehicles and drivers that would absorb the extra demand from trips that Rural Transit now offers.

After the BT Board meeting, Connell told The B Square that there is a sense of urgency with the Rural Transit situation: “There’s going to be several individuals who are going to be left without service, if the solution isn’t found.”

Connell’s approach to the solution is for BT to fill in the service gap. But the first step to executing on that solution is to have the legal authority to provide the service. That’s why the BT board took Tuesday’s step to make a formal request that the city council to take the necessary action.

A part of the BT board’s request reads: “It is understood that an Interlocal Cooperation Agreement with Monroe County and perhaps other interlocal agreements will be necessary in order to finance the service expansion contemplated by this Resolution.”

The upcoming negotiations between BT, the county government, city council, and the mayor’s office, could include BT’s own federal funding stream, which comes through the Section 5307 formula program, and 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.

Based on The B Square’s review of 2020 census data, compared against the urban area maps, Monroe County’s urban area had a population of around 110,000 compared to Bloomington’s population of 79,801. That means about a quarter of the urban area population is made up of non-city residents.

In 2022, BT’s share of the Section 5307 funds was $4.1 million.

The crisis that has emerged over Rural Transit’s legal authority to provide service also has an impact on Rural Transit as a public transportation agency. Even if BT is able to fill in the service gap for passengers who would otherwise not have transportation, that will leave a funding gap for Rural Transit’s operations.

That’s because Rural Transit has to provide a local match for the federal Section 5311 funds. Rural Transit provides the local match through a combination of service contracts and grants.

Area 10 executive director Chris Myers appeared in front of the Monroe County council on June 27, to brief the county’s fiscal body on the situation.

Part of the discussion at the county council’s meeting included the fact that a $60,000 service contract between Stone Belt and Rural Transit would likely not be in the future mix. That’s because much of Rural Transit’s service for Stone Belt is internal to the urban areas and won’t be allowed starting Jan. 1, 2024.

That means county government could be asked to help fill in the funding gap that Rural Transit will be facing. The June 27 meeting was an informational briefing, and the county council did not take a vote on anything related to Rural Transit.

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