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Free Fare For All?
There’s been a groundswell of conversation recently about the possibility of having a fare-free bus system in an effort to get more people to ride the bus, to decrease traffic congestion and to help make Raleigh a greener city.
David Meeker, a partner in Carpenter Development and Trophy Brewing Company, is a proponent of a fare-free system. He questions why the city charges folks who make $8 or $9 an hour $1.25 per trip, or $2.50 per day, to get to and from work. Doing away with the fare would cost the city approximately $3 million in revenue, but it can be made up in ways such as a 1-cent property tax increase, Meeker posits. And, while some argue that going fare-free wouldn’t have a positive net effect on bus ridership, it’s possible that it could significantly increase the number of people who consistently use public transportation as it has in Raleigh’s neighbor to the west, Chapel Hill.
When Chapel Hill Transit went fare-free in 2002, the town’s bus system ridership increased by more than 30 percent over the previous year. With a population of roughly 60,000, Chapel Hill now has the largest fare-free bus system in the country.
Newly elected at-large council member Jonathan Melton has also expressed wishes for a fare-free bus service. He says he thinks zero fare would increase ridership in Raleigh and would make the city less car-dependent while making public transportation more accessible. “Many residents rely upon public transportation and eliminating that cost barrier could significantly increase quality of life,” Melton says.
Adds Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, a fare-free bus system “can break down barriers when people know they can ride the bus and can ride for free, and will help lower income residents.”
Both Baldwin and Melton say they believe the conversation around a fare-free bus system is worthwhile. But, they say, before Raleigh can implement a free service for GoRaleigh buses, the city council first needs to ensure that the countywide Bus Rapid Transit system is implemented and supported and that issues around funding affordable housing and Dix Park can be addressed.
Baldwin has proposed a comprehensive bond for affordable housing and funding for the first phase of the $150 million Dix Park build-out to appear on Raleigh residents’ ballots this fall. “It’s asking residents to tax themselves,” Baldwin says, and she doesn’t think now is the right time to ask residents to pay for yet another tax increase.
“I think for fare-free bus service to work best, we need to coordinate with our regional partners,” Melton says. Those partners include the Triangle-wide bus system, GoTriangle, and the Regional Transit Alliance, a local advocacy group led by members of Wake County’s business community. “That’s a conversation that can begin now, with an eye on exploring a fare-free initiative in the near future,” Melton continues.
Baldwin says she has already spoken to GoTriangle about a fare-free service and that the bus system is interested in pursuing the idea. Meanwhile, the Regional Transit Alliance is planning a study on zero-fare to help inform city council members about the impacts it could have.
In the meantime, for every beer Trophy Tap + Table sells this month, the restaurant will buy one bus ticket for Raleigh riders. Trophy hopes to raise more than $5,000 throughout February.
Last month, our regional transit system GoTriangle debuted two 100-percent electricity-powered buses. The buses, built by Proterra, a leading battery-electric transit bus manufacturer, were funded through a $943,000 federal Low-No Emission Grant awarded to GoTriangle. “Being more environmentally friendly is just one more way we can better serve our growing region,” says Shelley Blake Curran, GoTriangle’s interim CEO and president. The electric buses travel 21.4 miles per gallon (mpg) at .19 cents a mile, whereas a diesel bus travels 3.86 mpg at .84 cents per mile. Additionally, the operating costs for an electric bus’s lifespan total far less than those of a diesel bus. The two electric buses will be used to train drivers for a few weeks before joining GoTriangle’s fleet of 74 running on all 13 regional routes and seven express routes. In addition, GoTriangle is currently negotiating with Raleigh real estate developer Hoffman & Associates to build a bus transfer facility and mixed-use development at Union Station to allow commuters to travel easily between bus and train.
No Driver, No Problem
The future is here and by that we mean that NCDOT is launching North Carolina’s first autonomous shuttle at NC State’s Centennial Campus. The self-driving shuttle, called CASSI (Connected Autonomous Shuttle Supporting Innovation), resembles a boxy New York subway car and can carry up to 12 people at a time. It will run through predetermined one-mile routes around Centennial on weekdays and during weekend events using cameras, radar, GPS and sensors to discern its environment and steer. The federal government does require an operator to be onboard; the operator can flip the shuttle to manual mode if any problems arise.
But problems are unlikely to arise: CASSI is an updated EZ 10 model from the French driverless transportation company EasyMile. It has been rated a level four on the autonomous vehicle technology ranking scale of zero to five. It boasts updated technology, an automated wheelchair ramp and a superior battery life that lasts all day, with heating and air conditioning.
NCDOT has leased CASSI for a year in an effort to bring exposure to the future of autonomous technology and to position such technology as a last-mile transportation solution. “Being an innovation leader, NC State is excited to host CASSI and allow our students, employees and the surrounding community to experience this new transportation technology,” said Mike Kennon, the assistant director of planning and operations for the NC State’s transportation department.
CASSI will start running its routes at Centennial Campus February 3.
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