This past Tuesday’s meeting of Bloomington Transit’s five-member board included a first look at the 2024 budget for the city’s public transportation agency.
The biggest chunk of the draft 2024 budget is about $12.5 million for acquisition of land to expand BT’s bus storage and maintenance facility.
At around $26.3 million, the draft 2024 budget is about $9 million less than the $35 million the board approved last year.
But that’s still $11 million more than the roughly $15-million budgets for the previous three years.
BT board chair James McLary called the 2024 plan a “very aggressive budget.”
The roughly $15-million budgets for the three years starting in 2020 already reflected a substantial increase, compared to the roughly $9- to $10-million budgets before that.
For each of the last four years, the biggest increases have come in the category of capital expenditures. Bloomington Transit is purchasing battery-electric buses as replacements for buses that have reached the end of their useful life—with a goal of running an all-electric fleet by 2050.
Last year, BT put extra money into electric bus acquisition, just to add to the size of its fleet—to prepare for running a new east-west express route, after a study is completed to analyze the route’s exact alignment and scheduling.
This year, the capital expense category is still the biggest fraction of the budget, but that’s mostly because there’s a $12.5-million item in that category labeled “land acquisition.”
The idea is to use about $2.5 million of local money to match a hoped-for federal grant that will cover the cost of the roughly $12.5-million project.
When the new buses, which have been ordered, start to arrive in Bloomington, BT will need more space, to store and do maintenance on them, than it currently has at Grimes Lane. The eventual need for more space has been recognized for a few years.
The real estate where the Grimes Lane facility sits is owned by Indiana University. Bloomington Transit and IU Campus Bus services are co-located there. So one of the strategies included in BT’s strategic plan, adopted early this year, is to expand opportunities for collaboration and integration with IU Campus Bus, beyond mere co-location.
As the strategic plan puts it: “While the arrangement has benefited both agencies, the operation of two parallel systems results in unnecessary costs and reduces the seamlessness of the passenger experience.” A tactic listed under collaboration with IU Campus Bus is to engage Campus Bus in the facility planning process.
At Tuesday’s BT board meeting, general manager John Connell led off the presentation of BT’s draft 2024 budget with remarks about the $12.5-million land acquisition item.
Connell began his budget presentation by saying, “I think it’s critical that we address our most basic needs.” The most basic need, Connell said, is to expand the geographic area that BT serves.
At Tuesday’s meeting, just before Connell presented the draft 2024 budget, the board had unanimously approved a resolution that asked the Bloomington city council to give BT the legal authority to operate across Monroe County, not just inside Bloomington’s city limits.
Connell continued, saying that to achieve the most basic need of expanding the geographic service area, the footprint of BT bus facility headquarters needs to be expanded—whether that’s by adding adjoining lots or looking for land at a new location.
The lot that borders the Grimes Lane facility is an automobile salvage yard, owned by Auto Heaven, LLC.
At its previous monthly board meeting in May, the BT authorized Connell to negotiate a contract with Hanson Professional Services, Inc., for services related to land acquisition.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Connell told the board he would be working with Hanson to start the land acquisition process. Connell said the idea is to apply for federal funds to pay for the better part of the land acquisition cost. Federal transit grants are typically awarded based on an 80-20 matching scheme, with the feds paying 80-percent.
Connell told the board that to cover the required $2.5-million match, BT would tap part of the $3.8-million annual award of new local income tax (LIT) money that it is receiving from the city of Bloomington. The $3.8 million in new LIT revenue comes from the “economic development” category of LIT, which goes to the city.
Bloomington Transit also receives some local income tax directly—in the “certified shares” category of LIT. In 2023, BT received $606,795 in certified shares LIT revenue. The draft 2024 budget is conservative—it calls for the same amount of certified shares LIT revenue as in 2023.
The amount of LIT revenue is not the only place where BT’s 2024 draft budget is conservative. In the draft budget, the revenue from BT’s property tax levy is pegged at just 3 percent more than in 2023.
In 2023, BT collected $1,547,274 for its property tax levy, based on a rate of $0.0319.
But the maximum levy growth quotient (MLGQ), which was released by the state’s department of local government finance a few days ago, is 4 percent. That’s a figure that will factor into the budget planning for every local unit of government in the Hoosier state.
It would have been 5 percent, except for a new law that was enacted by the state legislature in its 2023 session. Still, the MLGQ is 1 percentage point higher than the number in BT’s 2024 draft budget.
BT controller Christa Browning told the board that the 2024 draft budget includes a 6-percent increase for fixed route drivers and a 9-percent increase for BT Access (paratransit) drivers. BT is trying to achieve parity in compensation between fixed-route and paratransit drivers.
Connell said that none of the new LIT money that BT is receiving from the city of Bloomington is programmed for a planned new east-west express route—a bus rapid transit (BRT) concept which BT is now calling the Green Line.
But Connell pointed to the $450,000 of new LIT money that was included in the 2023 budget for study of the corridor that the Green Line is supposed to serve. And looking ahead to the 2025 budget, Connell told the board they might see $3 million of new LIT money allocated for right-of-way acquisition costs that could be associated with a BRT project like the Green Line.
Other new LIT-funded initiatives in BT’s draft 2024 budget include $200,000 for same-day paratransit service, and $300,000 for Sunday service. Also continuing to be paid for by the new LIT funding are two new staff positions—for marketing and for grants and procurement—which were created for the 2023 budget year.
Zac Hunec, who was previously BT’s planning and special projects manager, was hired for the grants and procurement position.
Replacing Hunec as planning and special projects manager is Shelley Strimaitis. Hired as the marketing and development manager was Kathy Schultz.
Strimaitis and Schultz attended their first board meeting on Tuesday.