Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt put the Chapel Hill Transit system to the test Wednesday, riding the HS route to the Varsity Theater.
Wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a striped blue polo, Kleinschmidt later met Chapel Hill residents at the Starbucks on East Franklin Street to discuss the town’s transit and mobility issues in a more casual forum.
“Sometimes those formal occasions become kind of chilling, and people have those expectations that the mayor is going to come talk at us,” Kleinschmidt said.
“That is not what this is about. It’s about receiving feedback in an informal, comfortable way.”
While enjoying complementary coffee and treats, about 15 Chapel Hill residents were able to give the mayor and other Chapel Hill Transit officials feedback about the transportation system.
“We just want to measure the pulse of the community,” said Len Cone, community outreach coordinator for Go Chapel Hill. “We want to hear what they want to say because it makes a difference.”
Jon Speer, a bicycling enthusiast and Chapel Hill resident, said he thinks the town is not safe for cyclists when the group discussed alternative modes of transportation.
He said he would like to see the town give people a safe place to ride by closing streets on the weekends or on Saturday mornings.
“I am an experienced rider, and I’ll ride on any road around here, but people who are not, cannot safely do it,” he said.
The Chapel Hill “fare-free” transit system was first implemented in January 2002, said Brian Litchfield, assistant transit director for Chapel Hill Transit. Since then its ridership has increased every year, reaching nearly 7.5 million in 2009, he said.
Though the system is fare-free, it is funded by yearly local taxes and a transportation fee added to every UNC student’s bill.
“It is almost like a pre-paid option,” Litchfield said. “People don’t pay anything as they get on the bus, but they finance the service through taxes.”
According to the transit website, the system has a more than $11 million budget.
Public forums where citizens voice their opinion on service adjustments are even more crucial in light of state and local budget cuts, Kleinschmidt said. If cuts come, the town needs to know where to prioritize.
Chapel Hill Transit is part of a partnership looking for ways to make a comprehensive transit system around the Triangle area. The system could include a light rail system and buses supporting it.
“We’re supportive of that, but it is still in the early study phases, and Triangle Transit is kind of leading the charge on that,” Litchfield said. “But we’re definitely involved from a staff and planning perspective.”
But budget cuts could hinder progress on the transit system.
“We’ve tried over the past couple of years to maintain the level of service that we have on the street,” he said. “Hopefully we will be able to do that this year, but you never know.”
A 2010 Chapel Hill Transit Resident and Passenger survey showed that 86 percent of users are satisfied with the system, and 68 percent would be willing to pay more taxes for expanded services.
“It is a great public service — especially the safe rides or the ‘drunk rides,’” said Chapel Hill resident Carl Schuler.
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