Bloomington public bus drivers needed, Route 8 could see “microtransit” pilot

Bloomington Transit (BT) has a critical need for more drivers in the fall, when Indiana University’s normal fall semester starts.

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.

All five board members attended in person. From a tech perspective, the hybrid setup appeared to work glitch-free. Continue reading “Bloomington public bus drivers needed, Route 8 could see “microtransit” pilot”

Bloomington Transit back to charging bus fares on July 1, passengers to board at front

On July 1, Bloomington Transit (BT) buses will resume collecting the standard $1 fare for fixed-route bus rides.

The BT board’s vote to resume fare collection, after operating fare-free for over a year, came at its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The board also voted to open the downtown transit center to the public starting June 1.

The facility had been closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fare collection had also been suspended over a year ago, early in the pandemic.

The resumption of fare collection means that passengers will need to board buses through the front door where the fareboxes are located. They had been allowed to board through the rear doors, in order to reduce the chance of COVID-19 transmission between drivers and passengers. Continue reading “Bloomington Transit back to charging bus fares on July 1, passengers to board at front”

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”

Pandemic puts new bus route optimization plan on hold, with possible stopgap alternative for service to new hospital

Bloomington Transit’s new route optimization plan now seems like a long shot to be implemented before the end of the year. That’s based on discussion by BT board members with general manager Lew May at their monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The route optimization plan, with increased frequency on some routes, and some service specifically set up for the new IU Health hospital on SR-46, was originally slated to be rolled out in fall 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed that timeframe. It’s not clear when a date for the plan’s implementation might be dialed in. Based on Tuesday’s board discussion with May, about six months of lead time will be needed to put all the pieces in place after a timing decision is made. The pieces include hiring 8 to 12 new drivers and educating the public about the new routes.

It points to a longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Bloomington’s public bus system. In the short term, ridership has plummeted and continues to bump along at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Continue reading “Pandemic puts new bus route optimization plan on hold, with possible stopgap alternative for service to new hospital”

Monroe County GOP chair names appointment to public bus board, 90-days after term expiration with no action by Bloomington city council

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.

A Bloomington Transit bus waits at the downtown transit center on Nov. 17, 2020. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

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.

Continue reading “Monroe County GOP chair names appointment to public bus board, 90-days after term expiration with no action by Bloomington city council”

Bloomington Transit board OKs shift to slightly bigger gear related to COVID-19 reopening

At its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday night, the five-member Bloomington Transit board approved a two-phase reopening plan for public bus service in the city.

The plan sets June 1 as the date when something closer to a normal summer break schedule will resume.

Public buses in Bloomington have still been running during the state’s COVID-19 emergency orders, but using a modified Saturday schedule every day. That reduces the number of service hours by about half compared to normal levels this time of year.

Schedules are posted on BT’s website. Realtime bus locations, when they are running, are available through the mobile app DoubleMap.

During the first phase of BT’s reopening plan, passengers can continue to ride the bus fare-free and board through the rear door. Through the first phase, drivers will continue to receive time-and-a-half hazard pay. Continue reading “Bloomington Transit board OKs shift to slightly bigger gear related to COVID-19 reopening”

Zoning for 750-bed student complex gets OK, after local lawmakers relent

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Proposed planned unit development (PUD) zoning for a 750-bed student housing project on North Walnut Street, at the site of the current Motel 6, is now approved after a special meeting of the Bloomington City council on Monday night.

Responding to a question from The Beacon after the meeting, St. Louis-based Collegiate Development Group’s Brandt Stiles said construction is planned to start in July 2020, and the first tenants are expected to be able to move in by August 2022.

The council had defeated the proposed PUD zoning 12 days earlier with a vote of 3-5-1. Those five votes against the project on the nine-member council were enough to reject it on Sept. 4, after the city’s plan commission had recommended it unanimously.

Of the five previous no votes on the city council, two changed to yes—Steve Volan and Isabel Piedmont-Smith’s. Changing his vote from abstention to a yes was Chris Sturbaum. So the PUD zoning was approved on a 5-3 tally. Possibly adding a sixth to the yes side would have been Allison Chopra, who voted for the PUD on Sept. 4. She was absent from Monday’s meeting.

Voting no were Dave Rollo, Dorothy Granger and Andy Ruff.

Achieving clarity in writing about various concessions offered by CDG, through “reasonable conditions,” proved to be persuasive enough to add the three yes votes.

Those conditions included: sliding the building to the west nearer Walnut Street; creating a plaza in place of parking in front of the building, with two pedestrian access points to the plaza; removal of one floor from the east building; 50 solar panels generating a total of 20kW; a 20,000 square-foot green roof; parking offered to tenants only on an a-la-carte basis; $300,000 worth of sidewalk improvements on Walnut, and from Walnut to Dunn on 19th Street; funding of a Bloomington Transit route five miles long (around $130,000 a year); and adding additional brick to the facade.

Also a part of the project is a donation to the city’s housing development fund of more than $2 million.

The three councilmembers in opposition to the project did not exploit a chance they had towards the beginning of the meeting to end the proceedings early, and let the council’s Sept. 4 vote stand. That’s because the motion to suspend the rules, in order to bring back the question, needed a two-thirds majority, which is six votes on the nine-member council.

Had all three voted against suspending the rules, the motion, in Chopra’s absence, would fallen short of the six votes it needed. If that vote had failed, the next motion would have been to adjourn.

During the meeting, Rollo said that as a councilmember he might have voted against suspending the rules, but as president of the council, he wanted to allow the council’s majority to prevail on the merits of the project, which he understood to be in favor. After the meeting, Ruff called the decision to treat as separate issues the motion to suspend the rules and the vote on the project itself the “right thing to do.”

Continue reading “Zoning for 750-bed student complex gets OK, after local lawmakers relent”

Council Preview Aug. 28, 2019: Buses, fire allocations from public safety income tax

Two agenda items appear for a second reading and final vote on the Bloomington’s city council’s agenda for Wednesday.

One is an appropriation ordinance for Bloomington Transit buses—BT won some competitive federal grants totaling $900,000. That makes the ordinance amount about $1.13 million because of the 20-percent local share that BT will need to contribute towards the cost of the three new buses—two for its BT Access para-transit service and one for the fixed-route service. The fixed-route service bus is a battery electric bus. All three buses are replacement vehicles, not part of a fleet expansion. [Previous Beacon coverage: 1 2]

The second agenda item is one piece of the approvals the city council will need to make for the allocation of public safety local income tax funds. The income tax rate of 0.25 percent is estimated to generate about $8.65 million countywide. On Wednesday, the council will be asked to approve $389,461 worth of funding from that tax revenue—it’s the portion that goes to “qualified service providers.” In practical terms, that means the money will go to a half dozen different fire departments in the county.

Legislative packets with detailed background are available on the city council’s document page.
Continue reading “Council Preview Aug. 28, 2019: Buses, fire allocations from public safety income tax”

$900K worth of awards for Bloomington Transit buses to get first reading in front of city council

A total of $902,401 in competitive federal grants recently won by Bloomington Transit (BT) will allow the local public transit agency to buy three new buses—two for its BT Access para-transit service and one for the fixed-route service.

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A Bloomington Transit bus (diesel) navigates its way south under the railroad bridge at 10th Street.

All the buses are replacement vehicles, part of a regular program to keep the fleet up to date.

The new fixed-route bus will be a battery-electric vehicle, one of two that Bloomington Transit is now planning to order. The first battery-electric bus was already in the 2019 budget.

The electric buses are expected to arrive in late 2020 or early 2021.

A press release issued by the city about the federal grant awards touted the benefits of electric buses. They include: cost-effectiveness; zero direct carbon emissions; reduction in dependency on fossil fuels; and quietness of operation.

On Wednesday (Aug. 14, 2019) the city council is scheduled to get a first reading of the necessary appropriations ordinance. That ordinance totals $1,128,000 because of the 20-percent local share that BT will need to contribute towards the cost of the buses. Continue reading “$900K worth of awards for Bloomington Transit buses to get first reading in front of city council”

Beacon Benchmark: Busing it around Bloomington

Note: Beacon Benchmark columns are a way for the B Square Beacon’s writer to give readers some regular behind-the-scenes insight into this website, which aims to serve some of the news and information needs of Bloomington, Indiana.  

Yesterday marked what I hope will be the start of a month of daily rides on a Bloomington Transit bus. What’s the occasion?

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A 31-day smart phone boarding pass purchased through Token Transit. Showing the BT driver this display, which includes some dynamic elements, gets a passenger onto the bus. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

For one thing, July 1 is the beginning of the month. It’s also the beginning of the state of Indiana’s fiscal year, which runs from July 1 through June 30.

So it’s a good time to start something.

Why start riding the bus every day? It is a fair question, especially because I can’t ride the bus every day in July. On the Fourth of July, BT bus service is not available.

I will need to find a different way to make my way out to the Monroe County fairgrounds on July 4, to watch the rodeo that’s being put on by the International Professional Rodeo Association.

Readers who are familiar with the BT system know there’s no bus stop at the fairgrounds. But a Route 4 bus will get you to the intersection of SR 45 and Curry Pike.

From there, it would be about a mile and a half to the fairgrounds. That distance I can cover in just a few minutes by bicycle—if I load my two-wheeler into one of the racks on the front of the bus. That’s something I’ll have to try on a different day from the Fourth. Continue reading “Beacon Benchmark: Busing it around Bloomington”