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”

Council sets special meeting for Sept. 9, looks to vote on local income tax increase a week later

At Bloomington city council’s regular Wednesday meeting, president Steve Volan called a special meeting for next week, on Sept. 9, to consider a quarter-point increase to the local income tax across Monroe County.

The special meeting was scheduled at the request of Bloomington mayor John Hamilton, who wants the council to vote by Sept. 16.

Depending on the form of the legislation that’s put in front of the city council on Sept. 9, the nine-member group could vote the same night to impose the quarter-point income tax increase.

The intent appears to be: Wait until Sept. 16 for a vote on enactment of the tax. But if the proposal is introduced on Sept. 9 as a resolution, instead of an ordinance, a vote could be taken that same day, without any exceptional action by the council. [Added at 1:45 p.m. Sept 3, 2020: According to city council attorney, Stephen Lucas, the public hearing associated with the vote has to be noticed 10 days in advance. So the vote could not be taken, unless public notice of a hearing were given 10 days earlier.]

An increase of 0.25 points would generate around $8 million annually across the county, of which about $4 million would go to Bloomington.

What would the tax pay for?

Dating back a couple of years, one push for increasing the county income tax has come from advocates looking to expand public transit. When Hamilton suggested a 0.5-point local income tax increase on New Year’s Day this year, funding for public transit was a prominent part of the mix. Hamilton’s State of the City address in late February sketched out the possibility of increasing Bloomington Transit’s budget by 40 percent.

Increasing BT’s budget by 40-percent works out in round numbers to the better part of $4 million, or about half of the amount that the 0.5-point increase would have generated.

Public transportation no longer appears to a significant part of the mix for the 0.25-point proposal, an adjustment that came from the mayor in mid-July.

During public commentary at Wednesday’s meeting, pedestrian and public transit advocate Greg Alexander asked that the revenue from increased local income tax revenues be put towards public transit and sidewalks.

Alexander told the council to “make clear that you’re focusing the new income tax on transportation, specifically on the bus system—and gosh wouldn’t be nice if it was a little bit for sidewalks, too.” Alexander added, “Because transportation is a key, uncontroversial function of government.”

Alexander wrapped up by saying, “I just urge you to make it really clear what you want to spend the money on. And please spend the money on bike, pedestrian, bus—especially bus transport.” Continue reading “Council sets special meeting for Sept. 9, looks to vote on local income tax increase a week later”

Bloomington public bus driver tests positive for COVID-19, BT still on course for closer-to-normal service on Aug. 24

In a press release issued late Monday afternoon, the city announced that a Bloomington Transit (BT) bus driver has tested positive for COVID-19.

croppped 2020-07-22 inside a bloomington transit bus IMG_5461
The caution tape separating drivers from passengers on Bloomington Transit buses will soon be replaced with plexiglass shields.

That’s the second BT employee who has tested positive for the pandemic disease. The first was a maintenance worker. Nine other city employees have also tested positive.

According to Monday’s release, the driver started having symptoms on Wednesday, July 29 and received the positive result on Saturday, Aug. 1. For Saturday, Monroe County’s total COVID-19 confirmed positive case count was 10.

The seven-day average daily case count in Monroe County has started to drop—it’s now around around 13, compared to 20 for the last week of July. The number of cases reported for Sunday was just 2, the lowest number since July 6, almost a month ago.

In July, the BT board approved a plan to resume certain aspects of normal service starting Aug. 24. Continue reading “Bloomington public bus driver tests positive for COVID-19, BT still on course for closer-to-normal service on Aug. 24”

Bloomington Transit board likely to put off decision on new routes, delay implementation until January 2021

At its next scheduled board meeting on April 21, the Bloomington Transit (BT) board is likely to postpone a decision on new routes for the public transit agency, which were originally planned for implementation in August of this year.

The staff’s recommended postponement is based on the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The reason was described in a Friday email message to transit advocates from Zac Huneck, BT’s planning and special projects manager: “We believe introducing major service changes would add an unnecessary burden to our already strained operations.”

Heck’s email message said staff are looking at January 2021 for starting service on the newly designed routes, which are meant to increase ridership by increasing frequency and on-time performance, while maintaining about the same number of service hours. Continue reading “Bloomington Transit board likely to put off decision on new routes, delay implementation until January 2021”