Yes, Fare Free. (But It Isn’t Free.)

BOA Parade

Back in December, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen took part in the annual holiday parade through downtown Chapel Hill and Carrboro, sporting a banner with our new logo and leading a Chapel Hill Transit (CHT) bus laden with bicycles and, of course, one hula hoop. (For the record, one of the bikes was mine.) We may be a motley bunch in those Santa hats, but when it comes to boosting Carrboro—and public transit—we’re uniformly enthusiastic.

How to protect and strengthen our fare-free transit system is becoming an increasing concern, however. Federal and state revenues are flat or declining, and the fleet is aging badly. Some buses are so old their parts are no longer manufactured. Just to get to industry averages, CHT must replace a total of 42 buses and 13 EZ Rider vans yesterday.

Unfortunately, Santa won’t be delivering any of those vehicles next year.

Current estimates show that necessary capital expenditures and increases in operating expenses will cost CHT upwards of $80 million over ten years.  This doesn’t include service expansion, facilities upgrades, or the addition of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on major travel corridors.  Carrboro’s share of this cost isn’t yet clear, but it will be far more than, well, the cost of building the proposed Carrboro Arts and Innovation Center.

You might be interested in learning more by viewing these quick CHT system facts, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, the detailed financial sustainability presentation delivered to the Board of Aldermen in January.

I’m a member of the Chapel Hill Transit Partners Committee, which comprises delegates from the Town of Chapel Hill, Town of Carrboro, and UNC-CH. Most everyone on the board is convinced fare-free is the way to go to reduce the number of under-occupied cars heading to our downtowns, and to reduce the parking needs in town and at the university and hospital. Greenhouse gas reduction is a major appeal, as is knowing that free transit is a significant help to seniors, people with disabilities, and people of modest means.

More than one news outlet has reported that CHT is considering dropping its fare free policy in order to purchase buses. This is not quite true. As part of its sustainability planning, the system is refreshing past analysis to make sure that its board, elected officials, and the public are very clear about the trade-offs between charging fares and meeting ridership and other community goals. We want to see the numbers, of course, but we have a strong hunch they won’t be compelling enough to restore any sort of fare system.

Of course we all know transit isn’t really free anyway — even systems that charge fares require substantial subsidy. Ours is paid for with property and sales taxes, student fees, and by tax dollars passed through via grants from the state and federal government, among other resources. It is a “pre-paid” service: whether you choose to use it, you pay for the opportunity to do so. For those living in neighborhoods with little or inconvenient bus service, this doesn’t land well, but when carless people pay for local roads and childless people pay for our A-rated schools, we can’t say there isn’t precedent for sharing the load in our communities.

Chapel Hill Transit takes 7 million car trips off the road, carrying people more than 2.5 million miles in Chapel Hill and Carrboro every year. Imagine the impact of parking and traffic if there were no buses, or even just half of what we have now. To me, transit is fundamental public infrastructure — as fundamental as roads and schools.

So how do we pay for the new reality of stewarding a fare free transit system? Where will that $80 million come from? Here are some possibilities:

  • Municipal budgets, with or without new tax increases.
  • Municipal and/or County bonds.  Orange County already plans a bond issue in 2016—perhaps transit will be included?
  • Dedicated funding, such as parking fees.
  • Economic development taxes (which means increasing economic development!)
  • Advertising sales and sponsorships, such as bus wraps, on-bus adds, corporate adopt-a-bus programs and other creative ideas.
  • New public and private grant resources.
  • Allocations from Orange County and Chatham County, which benefit (or could) from connectivity to CHT routes and a regional approach to local transit.
  • Fee for service, for example, offering to operate Orange Public Transportation (OPT) for a fee.
  • Cost savings, for example, leasing rather than owning buses, or combining purchasing power or maintenance operations with neighboring transit systems for efficiencies.

It’s too soon to comment on the most likely sources, much less a timeline for raising the necessary funding. What I can say is that Carrboro and all of our transit peers will have to commit to significant increases in their transit investments within two years, a factor that already is informing my decisions about other financial investments the Town of Carrboro is considering.  There will be some compromises, but I’m confident one of them won’t be our fare-free system.