RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A push is underway to keep Triangle transit systems free of charge.
Those suspended bus fares are scheduled to end this summer.
“Being fare-free during the pandemic was of great benefit, not only for our riders but also for our transit operators because it limits the amount of contact between the transit operators and the public,” said Charles Lattuca, CEO and president of GoTriangle.
Federal COVID-19 relief dollars were used to offset revenue loss from fare suspensions by GoCary, GoDurham, GoRaleigh and GoTriangle. Like many transit systems, Lattuca says GoTriangle is wondering whether staying fare-free is sustainable post-COVID.
“That money’s gone now and we need to figure out what we can do to make sure that the transit is fair and affordable through our riders,” said Lattuca.
A fare-free system is supported by the Regional Transportation Alliance, which made its case to members Tuesday at the State of Mobility summit. Joined by transit and government leaders from across the Triangle, they laid out their priorities for the future. They include supporting federal funding for a new, longer runway at RDU, funding research for intersection improvements around the state, and completing the Interstate 540 loop.
A 2020 study from RTA on zero-fare systems showed going fare free could increase ridership by 30 percent and decrease conflicts between riders and bus drivers. However, it also means a loss in revenue and potentially crowded buses.
“It’s about also having good transit as well because fare-free transit services that don’t go places that people need them to go or don’t operate at the frequencies they need them to need them to, doesn’t work either,” said Brian Litchfield, director of Chapel Hill Transit.
That system went fare free 20 years ago thanks to investments from UNC Chapel Hill and the towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
“Before we went fare-free, we were averaging around 3 million rides a year. Pre-pandemic, we were averaging close to 7 million rides a year,” said Litchfield.
He says equity should be at the forefront of any future fare decisions by other transit systems.
“Whether you have $500 in your pocket, or you don’t have anything in your pocket, if you need a ride somewhere, you can walk to the bus stop and it’ll take you where you need to go,” said Litchfield.
RTA has recommended agencies consider a ‘Zero Fare Weekends’ pilot program. Their study found weekend fare collections make up just 2 percent of transit agency revenues.
Several cities across the country have already gone fare free. They include Olympia, Washington; Summit Stage, Colorado; Kansas City, Missouri; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Rock Hill, South Carolina. Some of those municipalities offset the cost with sales tax revenues.
“We want more people to ride and we definitely want people who can’t afford it to have the opportunity to ride. On the other hand, you have to have a financially viable transit system, and as with anything, you have to have money to do that. So, we’re working with those trade-offs and trying to figure out,” said Sig Hutchinson, chair of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees.