Opinion: Hey, Bloomington city council, got time for better bus routes?

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On Monday morning, two Bloomington Transit buses head out from the downtown transit center north on Walnut Street. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

In January 2020, the next edition of Bloomington’s common council will take office.

The first law passed by the new nine-member local legislature should be called the “Last Call Public Transit Time Ordinance.”

The new law would require that city council meetings end before the last public bus of the day leaves the general area of downtown and city hall, where city council meetings are held.

It would help ensure that people who rely on public transportation can attend city council meetings and stay until the end. It would also encourage councilmembers maintain some basic knowledge about Bloomington Transit bus schedules.

But here’s the most important consequence of the law: For councilmembers who think longer meetings are essential to doing the People’s business, the law creates an incentive to find the money to run buses later.

That’s important, given a proposed new route configuration from Bloomington Transit that would reduce evening service on half of its routes, even while maintaining the same total number of service hours.

BT has conducted a month’s worth of public sessions to introduce the new proposal. The final meeting is Tuesday, Dec. 3 from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Downtown Transit Center. The BT board isn’t expected to make a decision until early next year. [Take the BT survey on the new route proposal here: Survey Link]

Here’s a draft of the local law I’d like to see passed:

2.04.425 – “Last Call Public Transit Time Ordinance”
(c) Members of the common council shall keep themselves apprised of the clock-time when public transportation service from downtown to any other part of the city ends for a day on which a meeting of the common council or any committee thereof takes place. This clock-time shall be known as Last Call Public Transit Time. During a meeting of the common council or any committee thereof, the chair of the meeting shall, not later than 15 minutes before Last Call Public Transit Time, entertain a motion “to extend this meeting past Last Call Public Transit Time.” If such a motion is not then made by some councilmember, or does not achieve a 2/3 majority, the meeting shall be declared adjourned by the presiding officer.

No doubt such a law would be mostly symbolic, and would not immediately improve public bus service for anyone.

And it’s possible that councilmembers will develop a comfortable routine of voting to extend meetings past Last Call Public Transit Time.

I’m OK with that. If public bus schedules get a routine mention at city council meetings, that’s one in the win column.

I did not know off the top of my head, before I started writing, the answer to this basic question: When is Last Call Public Transit Time in Bloomington?

After looking up the schedules and routes, it looks to me like the Number 7 (Henderson / Walnut Express) leaves 3rd & Walnut at 9:14 p.m. I think that means:

Bloomington’s Last Call Public Transit Time = 8:59 p.m.

Based on the regular start time for council meetings of 6:30 p.m., that’s two and a half hours for the city council to conduct a meeting, without going past Last Call Public Transit Time.

If councilmembers think it’s not reasonable to do the People’s work within the time constraints of the ordinance, changing Last Call Transit Time to allow for longer meetings is within their power as legislators.

More about the local income tax in just a minute. For now, I’ll just say city councilmembers are free to use their legislative powers to find the funds and make additional appropriations so that public buses can run later. If buses run later, it makes Last Call later.

But by next August, Bloomington’s Last Call Public Transit time could be a lot earlier. A proposed new route configuration, based on a route optimization study that Bloomington Transit has commissioned, would reduce evening service on six of the 12 new routes, when compared to their current geographic equivalents.

Under the proposed new route configuration, the Last Call Public Transit Time would be 6:45 p.m. That would give the city council just 15 minutes to complete its business. I think that’s maybe a little quick.

Measured by total service hours, the proposed new route configuration does not reduce service. According to Bloomington Transit, the total number of annual service hours will be roughly the same—94,593 now, compared to 94,836 for the proposed new routes.

Yet the proposal does eliminate some service for the riders on those poor-performing later evening routes. Those riders might be few, but they likely rely on public bus service at those hours.

Bloomington Transit wants to make up for that gap with micro-transit service, which is an on-demand Uber/Lyft-style approach. But funding for micro-transit depends in part on a $650,000 federal grant application, and that grant is not certain to be awarded.

Part of the bargain it seems like we’re being asked by Bloomington Transit to consider is to trade in the poorly performing evening route service for some fantastic new high-frequency, bi-directional routes, like Route 90.

The proposed Route 90 would provide weekday, Saturday, and Sunday circulator service to College Mall, the new IU Health Bloomington Hospital facility, the IU campus, and the Downtown Transit Center. With scheduled frequency of 20 minutes, that’s one bus every 10 minutes going one way or the other on the bi-directional loop.

That’s pretty great, because high frequency is one key to making the public bus a viable transportation option. Just recently I took the public bus from downtown to Bell Trace to cover a city council candidate forum, and had to wait just a couple of minutes each way for the bus to arrive.  If the Route 6 bus ran only once an hour, I would not have considered trying to use it to make that trip.

So it’s not crazy for BT at least to ask us as a community: What do you think about this kind of trade-off?

The question I prefer to consider is: Why can’t we have both—some new high-frequency bi-directional routes while maintaining evening and night service on all routes? The answer is, of course: money. The route optimization study from which the proposal emerged assumed revenue would be neutral.

But funding dramatically more local public transportation is an option that is completely under Bloomington’s control. We don’t have to ask the state legislature to do anything.

We could set our local income tax rate as high as 2.5 percent. But it’s currently collected at a rate of just 1.1982 percent. That works out to an untapped taxing capacity of around $20 million. If just half that were put towards public transportation, it would double Bloomington Transit’s budget.

I think it’s time to stop thinking about revenue-neutral options for improving Bloomington Transit service. I think it’s time for us to reach into our own pockets and buy more service.

That’s why I think it’s time for the city council to think about measuring its meetings by how long the public buses run. If councilmembers want more meeting time, they should fund more public transportation.

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Hey, Bloomington city council, got time for better bus routes?

    1. We share facilities and transfers. Campus bus is in joint offices with BT. We have a very good working relationship.

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