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.
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.
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.
A plexiglass partition on a hinge has been installed at the front of Bloomington Transit buses to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 between passengers and drivers.
On Tuesday, at its regular monthly meeting, the Bloomington Transit board approved an extension of BT’s fare-free policy through Oct. 20.
The fare-free policy started in March, along with rear-door boarding, as a way to reduce passenger-driver interactions and help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The regular fare is $1 a ride.
Passengers can now board through the front door. A plexiglass partition on a hinge has been installed in buses to form a kind of compartment for the drivers, to reduce the chance of COVID-19 transmission.
Also on Tuesday, the latest numbers reported to the Bloomington Transit (BT) board showed the COVID-19 pandemic’s continued impact on ridership. The lower-ridership trend that started just after Indiana University’s spring break in March has continued through the start of classes this fall.
Ridership has shown incremental gains from month to month since April. But the typical big bump in August is absent this year. Bloomington’s public transit ridership in normal years is roughly 70 percent Indiana University affiliates.
Caution tape separates drivers from passengers in Bloomington Transit buses (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)
A sign on the front door of a Bloomington Transit bus points passengers to the rear door, to reduce the chance of driver-passenger COVID-19 transmission. BT has waived fares for the duration of the health emergency, so there’s no need to have access to the farebox near the front door. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)
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.”
Ridership was a smidgen higher in 2019 compared to 2018, the first time ridership has been up since 2014.
BT general manager Lew May explains BT staff recommendations for adjustments to the optimization-study recommended new routes. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)
Tuesday’s regular monthly meeting of the Bloomington Transit (BT) board delivered a bright spot of news. The 3.16 million rides taken on fixed route buses in 2019 reflect a 1.75-percent increase over the total from 2018.
Fresh numbers provided by Bloomington Transit show that total bus ridership last year dropped for the fourth year in a row. And the decrease was driven mostly by decreases in ridership by university affiliates—students and faculty.
The roughly 3.1 million rides taken on Bloomington public buses in 2018—by university affiliates or rank-and-file resident riders—reflect a 6-percent decrease compared to the year before, and a 13-percent decrease compared to the peak of 3.51 million rides taken in 2014.
The recent four-year downward slide follows a few years of slowing growth and a plateau, after a 50-percent increase in ridership from 2005 to 2010.
Ridership in 2018 was the lowest in nearly a decade. The most recent year with lower ridership than in 2018 was 2009, when 3.03 million trips were taken.