Back on board Bloomington buses: Ridership boost in August 2023 compared to pre-pandemic numbers

At its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday night, Bloomington Transit’s five-member board approved a total of $2.8 million in spending.

The three big approvals broke down like this: a contract with Foursquare ITP for an east-west high-frequency transit corridor feasibility study ($450,000); a contract with ETA Transit for computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location information technology ($850,000); and a purchase order from Gillig LLC for eight dual port charging stations for electric buses ($1.5 million).

But those three items had all been long in the works. None were unexpected.

Providing at least a mild, and pleasant, surprise was the monthly ridership report from planning and special projects manager Shelley Strimaitis.

The weekday ridership on fixed-route BT buses is now around 90 percent of pre-COVID pandemic levels, Strimaitis reported.

That’s after 2020 and 2021 showed yearly ridership levels at about 40 percent of the numbers in 2019. By 2022, BT’s ridership had clawed back only to about 60 percent of the 2019 numbers.

But BT’s year-to-date fixed rate ridership through August is up by about 30 percent compared to last year’s numbers—1,397,865 rides so far this year, compared to 1,077,021 in 2022. That’s still about 22 percent below the 2019 numbers through August of that year—the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

But the raw numbers for August this year hint at a significant ridership bump. The 230,653 fixed route rides that BT delivered in August 2023 are about 16 percent more than the 199,118 rides BT delivered in August 2019.

But after Monday’s BT board meeting, Strimaitis told The B Square that there are some caveats for the monthly figures. First, Indiana University classes started a week later in 2019 than they did this year. Second, there was no Sunday service in 2019, like there is now.

Strimaitis said that for comparable weekdays from the two years, BT’s ridership is now about 90 percent of the pre-pandemic levels.

The $450,000 contract with Foursquare ITP, to conduct a feasibility study for an east-west high-frequency transit corridor in Bloomington, is one way that BT is spending the roughly $3.8 million a year  that it now receives from the city of Bloomington. The annual boost in revenue comes from the the economic development local income tax (ED LIT) that was enacted by the city council in 2022.

The city council has an expectation that the investment in ED LIT money will eventually deliver an express bus route connecting the east and west sides of Bloomington.

The eight dual port charging stations for electric buses, which BT is buying from Gillig for $1.5 million, are part of BT’s program of expanding its fleet—to be able to run an east-west express route—and replacing existing buses with battery-electric vehicles. BT has a goal of running an all-electric fleet by 2050.

The $850,000 contract with ETA Transit for computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location information technology, will among other things, allow the drivers to see bus locations in real time.

As part of his update to the board, general manager John Connell said that he wanted the board’s OK to go ahead and negotiate an “equitable funding” arrangement for the service outside Bloomington that BT plans to provide. The service will be provided to passengers who, starting Jan. 1, 2024, will no longer be able to take Rural Transit on-demand buses for trips inside Monroe County’s urban area.

The outcome of the discussion was that Connell would make arrangements to discuss funding with Monroe County government officials, and include a couple of BT board members, the mayor’s office and some city council members.

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