Bloomington Transit’s (BT’s) new optimized bus routes will finally debut on Aug. 15 this year.
That’s the result of BT board action at its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday.
The routes were supposed to roll out two years ago, in fall 2020, but that launch date was delayed until this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the new routes to be implemented later this fall will be a lot different from those recommended by BT’s consultant three years ago.
Also getting a mention at Tuesday’s board meeting was the June 27 launch of subsidized rides on Uber or Lyft as a replacement for night service (9 p.m. to midnight) on several BT fixed routes. The board had previously approved the service change. The only question had been the start date.
Under terms of the late-night service, which is branded as “BT Late Night,” passengers pay the usual $1 fare, with the difference, up to $19, paid by BT. Rides have to start and end inside a prescribed area of the city, which does not include chunks of the Indiana University campus, because fixed route bus service will continue for those parts of town.
The Uber/Lyft subsidized service for late evening hours was originally supposed to start on May 9, right after Indiana University’s spring semester ended. But details related to the technology platform took longer than expected to iron out.
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.
At its monthly meeting on Tuesday, the five-member Bloomington Transit board reached a consensus that a consultant should be hired to help the public bus agency develop a five-to-seven-year strategic plan.
The new strategic plan will incorporate the new reality of diminished ridership, which continues to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2021, 115,504 rides were given on BT’s fixed-route buses. That’s about twice the number of rides in December 2020. But it’s less than half the number of rides in December 2019.
When he reported out the monthly ridership numbers from December, BT’s planning and special projects manager Zac Hunec told the board: “We’re kind of shifting away from this mode of comparing our statistics to quote unquote, normal times.” Hunec added, “I think we’ve all kind of recognized this is the new normal. When we start looking at statistics, we’ll just be comparing it to the previous year.”
James McLary at the July 2021 Bloomington Transit board meeting.
Nancy Obermeyer at the July 2021 Bloomington Transit board meeting.
Is it possible that someday everyone waiting at a public bus stop in Bloomington could climb aboard without having to pay a fare?
Could Bloomington’s public buses ever follow routes that go outside the city limits, if they serve the interests of Bloomington residents?
Will Indiana University and Bloomington Transit (BT) ever extend their cooperative arrangements to a point where there’s just one public bus system in town?
Those are some of the questions that BT’s new board president James McLary would like to address in a strategic plan that the public transit corporation is developing. McLary spoke about BT’s strategic plan in a late December interview with The B Square.
The strategic plan will have to incorporate the impact of the pandemic on ridership. In November 2021, BT ridership on fixed routes was about half what it was in pre-pandemic times.
Some planned changes to Bloomington Transit’s Route 2 West have now been put in reverse.
The loop that defines much of the route had been proposed to change from clockwise to counterclockwise.
But the most recent version, which was presented to the Bloomington Transit (BT) board as its Tuesday meeting, was clockwise.
Also included in the most recent version of Route 2 West, presented by planning and special projects manager Zac Hunec, was the restoration of closer service to Bloomington Housing Authority’s Crestmont Community.
This most recent iteration will be circulated to the public again before the board settles on a final version, which is supposed to start service in January 2022.
At its Tuesday meeting, the BT board also got an update on the new Route 10 that will provide service to IU Health’s new hospital on the SR 45/46 bypass when that facility opens on Dec. 5.
On Tuesday, the board also received an update on ridership numbers, which have not fully rebounded from the impact of the pandemic. In October of this year, BT gave about half the number of fixed route bus rides that it did in October 2019.
Riders of Bloomington Transit’s Route 2 West will notice some changes at the start of 2022.
The basic geography covered by the route will stay the same. It starts at the downtown transit center, heads a bit north, then makes a loop around the northwest part of town including the Bloomington Housing Authority’s Crestmont Community. The loop is a kind of box, bounded roughly by College Avenue, 17th Street, Crescent Road, and 11th Street.
The new configuration will trim off a north-south segment from the east side of the loop. That means the new Route 2 West won’t include service along Morton Street or College Avenue. The eastern edge of the loop will instead be formed by Rogers Street.
Another significant change is the removal of the segment that leaves the outer box of the loop defined by 17th Street, heads down Lindbergh Drive, jogs over on 15th Street, down Illinois Street, right past the Crestmont Community, over on 13th and eventually back up to 17th Street.
BT board chair Nancy Obermeyer receives AFSME ratified letter from union president Jeff Cisneros.
BT board chair Nancy Obermeyer.
BT general manager John Connell.
On Tuesday night, Bloomington Transit’s five-member board approved a new four-year collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME Local 613, the bus drivers union.
Under the new contract, for full-time fixed-route bus drivers in their third year of service, the hourly wage will increase from $19.69 now to $21.19 in January 2022. That’s a 7.6-percent increase.
By the fourth year of the contract, those drivers will be paid $25.69 an hour, which is a 30.5-percent increase over their current wage.
New BT general manager John Connell, who took over from retiring Lew May at the start of the month, told the board, “One of the goals that we set out was to establish an increase in pay and benefits where we could be in a position to offer careers, not jobs. And I think this contract does that.”
Connell continued, “It’s a four-year term. And in the fourth year, our wages will be very competitive.”
At just a smidgen over $15 million, Bloomington Transit’s preliminary budget for 2022 is about 3.7 percent more than last year’s approved total amount.
That’s the number that Bloomington Transit’s general manager Lew May presented to BT’s five-member board at its meeting last Tuesday.
Some of that increase is due to an increase in employee compensation. The preliminary budget is based on a 3-percent increase in wages. How much the increase actually turns out to be will depend on the outcome of negotiations with the drivers, who are represented by AFSCME Local 613.
Those negotiations will need to take place over the next few months, because BT’s labor agreement ends on Dec. 31, 2021.
The timing for the back-and-forth between BT and drivers will coincide broadly with BT’s transition from May’s leadership, who has served 22 years as general manager, to John Connell’s, who was the board’s pick last week to succeed May. Connell is now operations manager for the Greater Lafayette Public Transportation Corporation.
BT’s board will likely vote on the final budget at its August meeting. The budget will then be presented to Bloomington’s city council for review and approval, in a separate vote from the city’s own budget.
And fixed-route service on Route 8 could see a one-year experimental replacement in September—with a combination of service provided through BT by Uber and Lyft.
Those were two takeaways from the Bloomington Transit board’s Tuesday night meeting.
The topics mean some significant work for the board and staff in the coming months, in addition to items already on their plates.
The board will need to make a decision on replacing 20-year veteran general manager Lew May, whose retirement is anticipated for August of this year. And the current collective bargaining agreement with the bus drivers union goes just through the end of the year, so it needs to be re-negotiated.
The BT board’s in-person Tuesday meeting was held in a way that offered access via the Zoom video conferencing platform.