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The Daily Tar Heel

Despite Financial Woes, Buses Will Stay Free

Preliminary reports state that the bus system has seen a 20 percent increase in ridership since Jan. 2.

Fare-free busing is the result of a collective effort between Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the University's Department of Public Safety. The service, which allows all public transportation patrons to ride with no extra fee, began Jan. 2.

Thus far, the project has been heralded as a success, and ridership numbers have increased on nearly all routes.

As the Chapel Hill Town Council begins work on its 2002 budget and DPS struggles to find funding for its share of fare-free busing's costs, there has been speculation that both towns and the University will be unable to supply satisfactory funding for the transit program.

When UNC students agreed last February to pay an extra $8.49 in student fees to help pay the University's 40 percent share of the service's cost, Chapel Hill and Carrboro agreed to pay the remaining 60 percent.

The total annual contribution from the University's coffers of $500,000 is projected to bring the DPS's debt to more than $2 million for the 2002-03 fiscal year.

DPS debt is expected only to increase in the coming years with several new parking decks scheduled for construction.

But Mary Lou Kuschatka, director of Chapel Hill Transportation, said sufficient finance planning by the three partners will ensure the system's success.

"There are three partners -- Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC -- and with each budget year, each of them have to have the money to support it," Kuschatka said.

"It will take the commitment of all of them to make this work in the long run," she added.

Chapel Hill Town Council member Dorothy Verkerk said the town has planned for the additional costs of fare-free busing.

She added that the fare-free system will not suffer from Chapel Hill's budget cuts.

"Fare-free busing hasn't been targeted to cut," she said.

But council member Jim Ward said that if budget shortages were to arise, there would be possible ways to raise funding.

"We could scale back timing on other capital expenditures, raise taxes and shift funding priorities to raise money," Ward said.

Officials also said that because the program is so new, its importance alone is enough to keep it up and running in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area.

Ward stressed that the new transit system makes a significant positive contribution to the community.

"It is a very high priority, and I would work hard to make it work," he said.

According to preliminary reports, ridership on Chapel Hill-Carrboro transit has increased by 20 percent since the new fare-free policy was implemented.

Ward said that if the entities decide to can the new transit system, several problems would arise, including a lapse in service to residents.

"It would mean that we were backtracking significantly."

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