At its regular Wednesday meeting, Bloomington’s city council changed local law to give Bloomington Transit authority to operate anywhere in Monroe County.
That city council decision meant a rejection of the approach advocated by the board of the Area 10 Agency on Aging, which operates Rural Transit, also a public transportation agency. Rural Transit provides service in Monroe County as well as three other counties—Putnam, Owen, and Lawrence.
Rural Transit wanted the city council to allow Bloomington Transit to expand service outside of the city limits—but only to include all of Monroe County’s “urban area.” The “urban area” is defined by the US Census and used by the Federal Transportation Administration to allocate funding.
Allowing Bloomington Transit to operate anywhere inside Monroe County, sets up a scenario where any ride provided by Rural Transit could also be provided by Bloomington Transit.
But on Wednesday, BT general manager John Connell told the city council that BT is not interested in trying to supplant any of the rural-to-urban and urban-to-rural service that Rural Transit can still legally provide.
In a resolution dated July 28, 2023, the Area 10 board expressed support for the expansion of Bloomington Transit’s service outside the city limits of Bloomington, but only to include the additional “urban area.”
In an email dated July 29, 2023, Area 10 executive director Chris Myers sent a copy of the board’s resolution to all city councilmembers.
Responding to a question from The B Square after the council’s Wednesday meeting, Myers indicated that she did not receive a reply to her email message from any city councilmember. She did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. Myers indicated she had not been notified that the council would that night be taking up the ordinance changing BT’s service area.
Attending the meeting on behalf of Bloomington Transit were general manager John Connell as well as board members Doug Horn and James McClary.
Background on BT expansion outside city limits
The idea of expanding BT’s service area outside the city limits has been batted around for years. Historically, it has been a specific area, just west the city limits, on 3rd Street, that has been the focus of those conversations. Cook Medical and Ivy Tech make that area a main employment and education center.
The area just west of the city limits on 3rd Street was the focus of a city council resolution approved in September last year, which declared the council’s support in principle for service as far as Daniels Way.
The western edge of the city as a potential BT expansion area got some discussion three years ago when the BT board deliberated on the final report from its consultant, Foursquare ITP, about revised route configurations.
That report included a proposed extension of Route 3 outside the city limits, to serve Ivy Tech and Cook Medical.
In January 2020, before the pandemic derailed BT’s plans to roll out new routes, based on the consultant’s study, BT’s board mulled which of the consultant’s recommendations to follow.
The board discussed at its January 2020 board meeting whether to ask the city council to enact an ordinance change in order to adopt the recommended Route 3. The five-member board decided at that time not to push the uncertain politics surrounding the question.
BT service expansion: Why now?
The impetus behind the current change to the local public transportation landscape was driven by new, strict enforcement of a long-standing rule involving federal funding.
Starting Jan. 1, 2024, Rural Transit will have to stop offering rides between two points, if both points are inside the so-called “urban area” defined by the US Census and used by the Federal Transportation Administration to allocate funding.
Up to now, Rural Transit has adhered to the principle that it will not offer rides between two points, if both points are inside the city limits of Bloomington. But INDOT, which passes through the Section 5311 FTA non-urbanized area formula grant funds to rural transit agencies, will start enforcing the actual rule—which applies to urban areas, not city limits.
Monroe County’s “urban area” includes a lot of territory that is not inside Bloomington’s city limits. The non-city population of the “urban area” as measured in the 2020 census was around 30,000 people.
That means as of next year, Rural Transit won’t be able to offer point-to-point service inside an area with a population of about 30,000 people. That translates into about 30-35 trips a day.
An example of the kind of trip that Rural Transit now provides, but after Jan. 1, 2024 will have to stop providing, is from Ellettsville to Walmart on Bloomington’s west side. Another such trip is from Ellettsville to anywhere inside the city limits—like the former location of the IU Health hospital at 2nd and Rogers streets.
On Wednesday, BT general manager John Connell told the city council that BT has the capacity to fill in for the roughly 30-35 trips, which Rural Transit will no longer be able to offer. Connell said BT would fill in those trips by using vehicles and drivers for its current BT Access on-demand paratransit service.
Area 10 and Rural Transit’s concerns did get a mention at Wednesday’s city council meeting—from councilmember Ron Smith, who retired from Area 10 a couple of years ago.
Smith asked Connell about the interest that Area 10 executive director Chris Myers had expressed in a city council ordinance that would allow BT to expand its service area just to include the urban area, not the entire area of Monroe County.
Connell said BT’s current intent is not to absorb any more trips than the urban-to-urban trips that Rural Transit can no longer provide. Connell put it like this: “So we have no intention of limiting [Rural Transit’s] ability to continue rural-to-urban.”
Why not just limit the ordinance to just what BT intends to do anyway? Connell said, “The reason we want the ability to operate countywide is we don’t want to be back in front of this council in five years…”
The transportation situation could change, Connell said, and BT wants to have the flexibility to adapt. Connell told the city council that BT does not want to “piecemeal it” but rather to get the legal authority to operate in additional areas in a “one and done” way.
Funding of service outside Bloomington
The ordinance enacted by the city council on Wednesday includes a section on the funding of service outside the city of Bloomington.
It was Steve Volan who sponsored the ordinance on the city council’s agenda for Wednesday. In his remarks, Volan cited Section 3, saying that he is concerned about the possibility that Monroe County government might use its general fund money to pay for service outside of Bloomington.
Volan put it like this: “I think anyone’s concern should be that if the county does contract with BT that no money come from the county general fund, because we as Bloomington residents and county citizens have paid into that fund as well.” Volan also pointed out that Bloomington property owners pay a tax that goes specifically to support BT.
In 2023 the property tax levy for Bloomington Transit will generate about $1.5 million in revenue.
Volan said about any agreements that might be struck between county government and BT for additional service, “As long as the county doesn’t use general fund taxes to make this agreement, I think we should be OK with it.”
The text of Section 3 doesn’t mention the county’s general fund.
SECTION 3. Any expansion of services outside of the city limits shall be funded through sources of revenue other than city funds or tax revenues already paid by city residents to the Bloomington Public Transportation Corporation, and any resulting interlocal agreements shall be equitable in relation to the level of support city residents already provide to the Bloomington Public Transportation Corporation.
Related to the equitable nature of the interlocal agreements mentioned in Section 3, Connell responded to a question from councilmember Matt Flaherty—about how BT is thinking about the question of equitable arrangements.
Connell’s response acknowledged the $1.5 million in property tax revenue from city tax payers. Connell also acknowledged the roughly $4 million annually that the city of Bloomington is allocating to BT from the city’s portion of revenue from last year’s local income tax (LIT) increase.
Connell included in his calculus on equity the additional federal grant revenue that non-city residents help generate for BT, just because they live inside the urban area.
Under the FTA’s Section 5307 formula program, the roughly 30,000 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 under local law, up until Wednesday night’s city council action, they could not get the benefit of Bloomington Transit service.
Those not getting service from BT still make up about 28 percent of the population used by the FTA to allocate Section 5307 funds to BT.
In 2022, BT’s share of the Section 5307 funds was $4.1 million.