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.
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.
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.
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.
Location map for bus stop improvements from bid package.
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.
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.
It’s an appointment that is normally supposed to be made by the city council. The mayor makes appointments to two of the seats and the city council makes the other three.
That’s under normal circumstances, when the appointing authority fills a vacancy in a timely way.
On Tuesday night, at a meeting of the city council’s four-member transportation committee, council attorney Stephen Lucas weighed in on the announcement Ellis had made three weeks earlier.
“I don’t see a reason why William Ellis would not have the authority to make that appointment, Lucas told committee members.” Lucas continued, “The state law [Ellis] cites allows for the appointment by the county chair, when the appointing authority does not fill a vacancy. I think that’s the case here.”
For a partisan-balanced board, a party’s county chair can make an appointment for a seat of a member with an expiring term, if that member is affiliated with the same party. Ellis’s appointment replaced Alex Cartwright, who is a Republican.
In a press release issued Thursday, Monroe County Republican Party chair William Ellis announced he has named Doug Horn to the five-member board of Bloomington Transit (BT), the local public transportation corporation.
Horn is a Bloomington businessman and former Monroe County plan commissioner.
It’s not the usual way appointments are made to the BT board, and might be disputed by Bloomington’s city council.
Under state statute, the seat to which Ellis has named Horn is supposed to be appointed by the Bloomington city council.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the city council’s four-member standing committee on transportation, they decided to use a couple of group interviews to consider just seven of eight applicants for the two vacant BT board positions.
Not in the mix for the committee’s group interviews will be Republican Andrew Guenther, who ran for the District 2 city council seat in 2019 that was won by Democrat Sue Sgambelluri.
Supporting Piedmont-Smith’s position were the three other members of the committee: Steve Volan, Ron Smith, and chair Kate Rosenbarger.
The committee will make a recommendation to the city council, which will make a final decision. The city council appoints three of the five seats. The mayor appoints the other two.
The two incumbents for the seats on the BT board now listed as vacant are Nancy Obermeyer and Alex Cartwright. They will be part of the set of seven who are being invited to sign up for slots for the group interviews. At the same time the transportation committee met on Tuesday, Obermeyer and Cartwright were handling the business of the board at its regular monthly meeting.
The deal with Trinitas was a requirement for the city council’s approval of the zoning for the project. The first year of service will cost $359,000. Construction on that project is expected to start as soon as the real estate deal closes, which is early December, based on remarks from Jeff Kanable of Trinitas, made to the BT board at Tuesday’s meeting.
The board also approved its Federal Transit Administration safety plan on just a 3–2 vote, with dissent from Alex Cartwright and James McLary. The plan did not appear to be controversial, but Cartwright and McLary wanted better clarity about how the definition of “safety event” that’s used by the feds squares up with BT’s statistics.
In another piece of business handled on Tuesday, the BT board approved an extension with the company that sells advertising on its bus wraps. BT splits the revenue 50-50 with Mesmerize, formerly Clean Zone Marketing. That stands at about $175,000 annually, according to BT general manager Lew May at the meeting. That’s about a six-fold increase since 2015, when BT started doing business with Mesmerize, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing ridership on Bloomington Transit buses to slump compared to normal levels, even if the month-to-month numbers have shown increases starting in May.
The return to campus of Indiana University students in August has increased numbers a bit, but the historical September spike is not evident on this year’s chart. That’s because the local travel needs of students have diminished due to the prevalence of classes offered online.
The reduced ridership means BT has reduced its service hours on routes that primarily serve campus locations—Routes 6, 7, and 9. That has led BT and IU to renegotiate the agreement under which university affiliates can board buses without paying a fare. The renegotiation reduced the payment to around 70 percent of the historical number.
At their Tuesday meeting, BT board members voted to continue BT’s COVID-19 protocols another month, which includes allowing all riders to board buses without paying a fare.