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The Daily Tar Heel

Fare-Free Buses Ignore Real Transit Issues

Chapel Hill and Carrboro town officials began working with University officials Tuesday to formulate a proposal on fare-free busing to present to both towns' governing boards.

Students already gave the go-ahead in February's student elections for a $16.98 yearly student fees increase to subsidize the fare-free busing. The University would cover 40 percent of the cost, and Chapel Hill and Carrboro would cover the other 60 percent.

Yeah, fare-free busing sounds great, but Chapel Hill Transit isn't ready for it yet.

The 2000 U.S. Census report shows that Chapel Hill's population has increased by 26 percent since 1990 and that Carrboro's population has increased by 45 percent. And that trend doesn't seem to be slowing down.

Have you ever tried to get on the U-bus on South Campus at 8:45 a.m.? It's not an easy thing to do. Maybe part of the reason for that is the U-bus is free.

No, people aren't just cruising around on the U-bus because it's free. But the fact that it's free means the U-bus is not a revenue producer, meaning no matter how many people ride the bus, it pulls in the same amount of money.

Fortunately, people who are riding the U-bus don't have to go very far, so they can always walk if they don't get on the bus. Plus, for the rest of the day, ridership is staggered, so it makes sense for the bus to remain free.

But the rest of Chapel Hill Transit's riders aren't so lucky.

Let's say you live on Airport Road. Would you rather have a free bus that comes every 45 minutes and stops running at 5 p.m. or one that costs 75 cents, comes every 15 minutes and stops running at 11 p.m?

If the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and the Chapel Hill Town Council approve a proposal for fare-free busing, riders will end up with the first scenario. Bus service will remain the same or decline.

That's not to say there aren't plans to improve bus service along with making it fare-free, but it will be much harder and take much longer to improve Chapel Hill Transit if people don't have to pay to ride it.

If students are so willing to increase student fees for fare-free busing (70 percent of us voted for the referendum), they should be willing to have that student increase instead go to improving the bus system instead of making it free to ride.

The goal of fare-free busing is to increase ridership to decrease traffic. But it's not the 75 cents keeping people off the buses.

Most people would cite inconvenience as the No. 1 reason they're not riding the bus.

In fact, it probably costs most people more than $1.50 a day in gas to drive to school or work and back.

The cost of a bus ride is not prohibitive by any means.

Students aren't on campus from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and not all Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents are at work during those hours either.

They need a bus schedule that reflects that. That bus schedule won't become a reality if Chapel Hill Transit loses its ridership revenue.

Besides that, Chapel Hill and Carrboro's town officials aren't even sure if they can meet their 60 percent of the cost.

"There will be competing needs," Town Council member Edith Wiggins told The Daily Tar Heel.

I'm all for an increase in student fees that would go to Chapel Hill Transit, but fare-free busing shouldn't be the goal of that increase, at least for now.

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UNC's Transit and Parking Advisory Committee should look for ways to improve the bus system before trying to make it free. Otherwise, we'll end up with a free ride no one wants.

Columnist Erin Mendell can be reached at mendell@email.unc.edu.

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