Booming Bloomington Transit budget in 2023: Will more than double, from $15M to $34M

The Bloomington city council’s approval of a local income tax increase earlier this year, which is supposed to earmark about $4 million a year to support public transit, is already reflected in the first draft of Bloomington Transit’s 2023 budget.

Bloomington Transit board members reviewed the draft budget at their regular meeting on Tuesday.

The $34 million that is proposed to be spent in 2023 is more than double the $15 million approved for this year’s budget.

Most of the increase is due to the capital cost of buying 18 new buses—four replacements, eight for expanded service, and six for increased frequency. All of those buses would be battery-electric vehicles.

Some of the increase is due to factors that are not unique to Bloomington. The line item for fuel, in the supplies category, will be increasing from $877,500 to $1,472,500. Right now, diesel fuel costs $4.30 per gallon. That stacks up against the 2022 budgeted amount of $2.75 per gallon. So given the market uncertainty, the draft 2023 budget has allowed $5.25 per gallon for diesel fuel.

Two key questions came from BT board member Kent McDaniel, who on Wednesday was re-appointed to the board by the Bloomington city council: How will BT pay for all those buses, and where will they be stored? Continue reading “Booming Bloomington Transit budget in 2023: Will more than double, from $15M to $34M”

Analysis: Does a local law need to change so a Bloomington public bus can run outside the city?

Map showing bus routes going outside of Bloomington city limits
Excerpt of map showing configuration of routes recommended by Bloomington Transit consultant in 2019.

If Bloomington Transit wanted to run buses outside of Bloomington’s city limits, what, if any, legal requirements would have to be met?

Specifically, what legal requirements would have to be met, in order for Bloomington Transit to serve educational and employment centers like Ivy Tech or Cook Medical—which are outside the city limits on the western edge of town?

In the last few years, the standard answer has been: An amendment to a local law  would have to be enacted by the city council.

But a closer look at the local law, and a state statute, suggests that a change to the local law might not be needed.

Instead, the city council would just have to approve any proposed bus service outside the city’s boundaries.

A request from BT to run buses to specific locations outside city limits could presumably be placed on the city council’s agenda by BT—just like approval of its annual budget and tax rate is placed on the city council’s agenda. BT could not force the city council to grant approval.

But that stands in contrast to an ordinance that would change city code. BT does not have the right to place a proposed change to city code on the city council’s agenda, much less force the council to enact it.

Why is this legal issue about the geography of BT’s service area somewhat pressing? Continue reading “Analysis: Does a local law need to change so a Bloomington public bus can run outside the city?”

Analysis: Bloomington city council to take up local income tax increase again this Wednesday

The sole item on this Wednesday’s special meeting of the Bloomington city council is a proposal to increase the countywide income tax by 0.855 points, which would bring Monroe County’s total rate to 2.2 percent.

Bloomington mayor John Hamilton re-floated the idea of a local income tax increase at his “state of the city” address this February. It was an idea he had unsuccessfully pitched in 2020. The mayor gave details of this year’s proposal in early April.

If the city council approves a LIT rate increase by a vote of at least 8–1, that will increase the tax for all residents of Monroe County. If the approval gets fewer than eight votes from the Bloomington city council, then the proposal would need to pick up some support from county councilors and/or members of the Ellettsville town council. Continue reading “Analysis: Bloomington city council to take up local income tax increase again this Wednesday”

Bloomington Transit set for Uber/Lyft pilot in May, to send city council memo on local income tax increase

On Tuesday night, the five-member Bloomington Transit (BT) board voted unanimously to go ahead with a pilot program starting in early May that will use Uber or Lyft—with a subsidy for the rides taken under BT’s banner—to replace late night service on some existing routes.

The board also discussed a proposal by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton to increase the local income tax paid by all Monroe County residents and to use some of Bloomington’s share of the additional revenue to fund new BT transportation initiatives.

The tax package includes around $5 million in public transportation projects, including a new east-west route with 15-minute frequency.

Board members expressed concern that the funding for the kind of transportation proposals described in the tax package would require some kind of long-term commitment by the city of Bloomington to BT. A memo with that message is supposed to be forwarded to the city council before Wednesday night’s city council meeting.

On Wednesday (April 20), the city council could take a final vote on the 0.855-point tax increase, which would raise the overall local income tax to a total of 2.2 percent.

Earlier in the day on Tuesday, BT announced that masks to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus would no longer be required on BT buses. That was the same approach that most transit providers seem to have taken after a federal judge struck down US President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring mask wearing. [text of US District Court Middle District of Florida ruling] Continue reading “Bloomington Transit set for Uber/Lyft pilot in May, to send city council memo on local income tax increase”

Bloomington Transit wants public input: Route changes, late-hours swap of regular bus for Uber/Lyft

A series of changes to optimize bus routes that were planned for 2020 implementation, but were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, are now back under consideration by Bloomington Transit.

Highlights include: the consolidation of Routes 1 South and 7 Express into a single route to be called Route 7; and the merging of Route 3 East, Route 8 Local, Route 9 Campus, and Route 10 Hospital into a single route to be called Route 90.

The Route 90 would operate on a bidirectional loop, with 20-minute frequency each way. The loop would encompass downtown, the Indiana University campus, and some of the east side down to the College Mall area.

Subject to final board approval, those route changes would be implemented in August of this year.

A pilot project that could be rolled out earlier is the replacement of the late-night service on some routes with “microtransit.” That means passengers could take an Uber/Lyft style ride for the standard $1 fare, with the remaining cost, up to $15, to be covered by Bloomington Transit.

The pilot for the micro-transit would be rolled out in May, after the IU semester ends.
Continue reading “Bloomington Transit wants public input: Route changes, late-hours swap of regular bus for Uber/Lyft”

$3K incentive for new Bloomington bus drivers, as ridership creeps upward from pandemic lows

Bloomington’s public bus system is about 10 drivers short of the number needed to ramp service back up to meet the needs of Indiana University students and affiliates in a post-COVID-19 climate.

“For us to be able to restore the full level of service to the IU campus, we would need to hire about 10 drivers,” Bloomington Transit general manager Lew May told the board at its monthly meeting on Tuesday.

Indiana University is resuming in-person classes in the fall.

May laid out the urgency of the hiring situation: “We’ve got about four months to go, to make those hires.”

To help with the hiring effort, at Tuesday’s meeting, BT’s board approved a series of incentives.

Incentives include: increasing the employee referral incentive from $1,000 to $3,000; implementing a new employee hiring incentive of $3,000; a $100 incentive for getting a COVID-19 vaccination.

BT is also planning to host an on-site job fair in mid-May where applicants could be interviewed on the spot. Continue reading “$3K incentive for new Bloomington bus drivers, as ridership creeps upward from pandemic lows”

Opinion: Fare-free public buses in Bloomington deserve a conversation right now

Bloomington’s public buses have been operating fare-free since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic appears to be waning, now is a perfect time to contemplate a permanent fare-free policy for BT buses.

It was over a year ago when Bloomington Transit’s five-member board made the decision to stop collecting fares from passengers as they get on the bus. The decision related to rear-door boarding protocols for pandemic prevention. Fareboxes are located by the front door.

Since then, the BT board has been voting at its regular meetings to approve the extension of the fare-free policy, one month at a time.

At the March board meeting, board member Doug Horn said he is reluctant to continue voting not to collect fares every month, as the board has been doing.

On the board’s Tuesday’s agenda is an item that would, among other things, extend the fare-free policy though May 18.

Based on Horn’s request in March—that BT staff prepare some fare data analysis—the item could get some lively discussion on Tuesday.

I hope the conversation is both lively and productive. Continue reading “Opinion: Fare-free public buses in Bloomington deserve a conversation right now”

Bloomington Transit mulls ending pandemic-based fare-free rides

At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Bloomington Transit (BT) board, the continuation of COVID-19 protocols, including fare-free, rear-door boarding for all bus passengers, was confirmed for another month.

It could be the last time the board votes to approve the protocols, without a date for resumption of regular service.

Board members are looking towards a resumption of regular operations by the fall. That’s when Indiana University has announced in-person classes will resume.

About 70 percent of BT’s normal, non-pandemic ridership comes from IU affiliates—students, staff and faculty. They don’t pay a fare when they board, because their rides are covered under an agreement between IU and BT.

The BT board’s next monthly meeting, in April, will include an agenda item to consider the formal question of resuming fare collection, effective as early as June 1.

The board’s decision not to collect fares—made early in the pandemic—was based on the goal of limiting the opportunity for driver-passenger COVID-19 disease spread, by allowing passengers to board through the bus rear doors. Fare boxes are located next to the driver’s seat at the front door of the buses.

On Tuesday, BT general manager Lew May reported to the board that the drivers union recommends resumption of fare collection as soon as possible.

About the union’s recommendation, May said, “They have noticed over the past year, a marked increase in the homeless population that has been using the bus as a place of refuge. And, and in some cases, they have caused some difficulty for us.”

How will the resumption of public bus fare collection affect the population of people who are experiencing homelessness, and organizations who serve them?

According to Beacon, Inc. executive director Forrest Gilmore, during non-pandemic times, the nonprofit spends about $500 a month on 50-percent discounted bus fares for its clients. That translates into 1,000 rides a month. That’s an expense that Beacon, Inc. has been able to save during the pandemic.

Back-and-forth between May and board members drew out some of the different motivations for resumption of front-door passenger boarding and fare collection. Continue reading “Bloomington Transit mulls ending pandemic-based fare-free rides”

Pandemic continues to crush public transit ridership, Bloomington doing extra bus stop improvements

The grim news out of Bloomington Transit’s Tuesday board meeting was not a surprise. The 53,187 bus trips taken on fixed-route service  in December 2020 amounted to just 20 percent of the 263,828 trips taken in 2019.

That continued the depressed trend that started after Indiana University’s 2020 spring break in mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It’s not a surprise, because normally about 70 percent of Bloomington’s public bus ridership is by Indiana University affiliates. Even when classes resumed, because a lot of instruction was conducted remotely, students had reduced local travel needs.

BT general manager Lew May said he thinks it could take years before ridership levels are back to the same level they were at the start of 2020.

Balanced against the expected bad ridership numbers was a proposal from the city’s public works director, Adam Wason, who said that at the end of last year, his department “rubbed nickels together to make dimes”—to identify an extra $150,000 that could be used for bus stop accessibility improvements. Wason already had $250,000 to spend on bus stops, from the first phase of the city’s Recover Forward initiative, which was approved by the city council in mid-August of 2020. Continue reading “Pandemic continues to crush public transit ridership, Bloomington doing extra bus stop improvements”

Ridership at 20 percent of normal, Bloomington buses continue fare free into 2021

At its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, the Bloomington Transit (BT) board voted to continue its COVID-19 measures, through mid-January, when the group next convenes.

Those steps include fare-free boarding through the rear doors, a closure of the downtown transit center to the public, and remote working for administrative personnel.

According to the meeting information packet, BT has distributed over 30,000 masks to riders since the pandemic hit. Compliance is good, but some riders still refuse to wear a mask, according to the packet.

Ridership in November dipped slightly compared to October (from about 89,000 to 68,000 rides), but the numbers generally trend down between those two months. Ridership during the last few months of the pandemic is only about 20 percent of the levels seen in previous years for the same period.

The board heard from general manager Lew May that state funding for BT through the state’s Public Mass Transportation Fund (PMTF) will be down by about 13 percent, from $2.55 million for 2020 to $2.21 million in 2021.

The drop in PMTF funding is down 13 percent for all transit systems in the state, according to May, which is an impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Continue reading “Ridership at 20 percent of normal, Bloomington buses continue fare free into 2021”