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The Daily Tar Heel

Towns Must Keep Buses Convenient

On Jan. 2, Chapel Hill Transit bus service became fare-free. So no longer will students, faculty and residents be forced to swipe a card, feed in a ticket or drop 75 cents to hop on a bus.

To mark the occasion, local bigwigs, including Chancellor James Moeser, Student Body President Justin Young and Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy, gathered around the Bell Tower on Tuesday for a kickoff ceremony.

Fare-free busing materialized after months of planning and preparation -- and it had its fair share of controversy.

University officials began advocating for fare-free busing two years ago. However, Carrboro and Chapel Hill officials only became interested after UNC agreed to shoulder more of the costs for the service.

The University will end up paying more than $4 million each year for fare-free busing. Originally, it was expecting a $2 million price tag.

The funds are coming from parking permit fees, departmental funds and student fees. Last February, students voted in favor of a referendum that raised student fees by $8.49 to help pay for the fare-free service.

The remaining costs are divided by population between Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

But considering the costs, will fare-free busing be worth it?

Many local officials, as well as University leaders, seem to think so.

When the student fees hike was being debated last year, detractors warned that fare-free busing would drain Chapel Hill Transit of the operating funds it required, leading to overcrowded buses and reduced routes.

But transportation officials are keeping a close eye on the situation.

"With this new system, we actually think overcrowding of buses should decrease, as with the new routes," Ray Magyar, UNC assistant director of transit, told The Daily Tar Heel.

In fact, instead of reducing services, the introduction of fare-free busing has added new buses, new routes, more drivers and extended operating hours.

These moves are critical if fare-free service is to be a success and alleviate some of the current -- and upcoming -- transit problems here.

After all, right now parking is a hot-button issue at UNC.

Though parking problems have always been an irritation for students, the loss of spaces for staff and faculty due to construction will force even the most unwilling to use park-and-ride lots or catch the bus to get to campus.

And as UNC expands its student population over the years to come, many will choose to live off campus -- increasing the demand for busing even more.

For now, it's best to wait and see before passing judgement.

Numbers have been thrown around about how much ridership will increase with the advent of fare-free service.

Some say a 10 percent hike. Others even go as high as 20 percent.

In the short term (i.e. this semester), I would be surprised to see a large jump in ridership.

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Students who have to ride the bus this semester more than likely had to ride the bus last semester.

But at least avoiding a crush of new riders will allow Chapel Hill Transit to adjust the number of buses per route and tweak the system as needed without a great deal of inconvenience.

With the Master Plan, UNC will inevitably take on more faculty, staff and students.

Those extra bodies will need a way to get to campus. The faster and cheaper mass transit is for users, the more likely they will use it -- and the less likely they will moan and groan about the lack of parking around campus.

Fare-free busing in and of itself takes care of the cheap part.

You can't get much cheaper than free.

It's up to transit authorities to maintain the efficiency of the bus system to ensure that riders do not get frustrated.

This ride will cost Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC a pretty penny.

But if the full potential of fare-free service is realized, they all will save themselves from more headaches and problems in the next few years.

Columnist Jonathan Chaney can be reached at jhchaney@email.unc.edu.

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