Student government officials say they are confident the proposal will pass and are not actively lobbying for its passage. They cite broad support for the student fees increase required to finance the proposal, with only isolated concerns about the program's consequences.
Student Body President Brad Matthews is bringing the issue to students' attention through door-to-door visits in residence halls and by asking presidents of student organizations to rally their members' support for the referendum.
If passed, the proposal will increase undergraduate student fees by $8.49 each semester for free busing in Chapel Hill. A year-round bus pass now costs students $250 for unlimited rides on city buses.
But a UNC student active in transit issues says that the proposal was not planned sufficiently and that it could have detrimental effects on the quality of the area's public transportation system.
Student Congress recently voted unanimously to put the proposal on the ballot. Speaker Pro Tem Sandi Chapman said that unless referenda are controversial, most usually pass on election day. "Students aren't all that fiscally conservative with an increase in the fees," Chapman said.
She said the intention of fare-free busing is to provide a service for all students, particularly those who cannot afford a car or a parking pass.
The towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro will pay 60 percent of the busing costs if the student body votes to off-set the remaining 40 percent. Taxes would not be raised, Matthews said.
The Student Environmental Action Coalition voted Tuesday to support the referendum. SEAC members said they are lending their backing because they believe free busing will decrease the number of cars on campus. "It will lead to an increase in public transportation, which is a good thing for air quality," said Heather Yandow, a senior member of SEAC.
The Black Student Movement also is mobilizing members to vote yes for fare-free busing.
"We feel this is definitely one way to help alleviate the parking problems on campus," said Tyra Moore, president of the BSM. "Also, it's a way to continue to build relationships between UNC and the community."
But some students are concerned about rapidly escalating student fees.
"I think this is a good idea, but I wonder when they are going to stop increasing our fees. It all adds up after a while," said Donna Evans, a senior history major from Princeton.
Other students are concerned that fare-free busing will lead to an overloaded Chapel Hill transit system.
Brad Rathgeber, a senior history major and president of Think Transit, said he is glad student government is addressing transit issues but that he questions the logistics of the proposal. "We have two concerns (with fare-free transit)," he said. "One is the economics. It will decrease the revenue for the Chapel Hill Transit Authority, so in turn, they will have to decrease the services they're putting out."
He said the transit authority now brings in $600,000 in revenue from UNC students but that it will only get a revenue between $400,000 and $500,000 from student fees if the fare-free transit referendum passes.
Rathgeber said he thinks a more in-depth study should precede a change in fares. "A consultant said going fare-free increases ridership by 50 percent," he said. "But the Transportation and Parking Advisory Committee hasn't made a recommendation on that. You can't put it out there without a recommendation."
But Chapel Hill Town Council member Kevin Foy said a similar proposal last year proved that the idea is not unmanageable. "Funding is, of course, always a problem, but the broader picture is how the transit system will continue to grow," he said. "One way to encourage growth is to cut fares, which will lead to an increase in demand and in buses."
Foy said he believes the proposal ultimately could benefit both UNC students and the Chapel Hill community. "The goal is sufficient demand to increase the number of buses and routes. That will in turn benefit the community and lead to fewer cars on the road."
In response to concerns that fare-free busing might overwhelm the system, Matthews points to the transit authority's ability to adjust to a heavier passenger load after a few weeks' observance, with more buses available for use. "The system can handle it," he said.
"If the point is to get people on the bus, then this is the way to do it because the parking crunch is only going to get worse."
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