Durham City Council members want to see fare-free bus service in the city improved, rather than eliminated as a proposal from the local transit agency recommends.
The council heard a presentation from GoDurham staff Thursday about a proposed five-year plan
that would eliminate the Bull City Connector, a fare-free route that runs from Duke to Golden Belt.
The future of the BCC was already uncertain because, beginning this summer, Duke University will no longer be paying a third of the cost, as it has in years past. GoDurham staff, tasked with creating the five-year plan within the bounds of current funding levels, recommended eliminating the BCC and redirecting its $1.2 million budget to improving other routes, citing low BCC ridership.
Council members agreed that the BCC has performance problems, but didn't think eliminating fare-free bus service altogether is the best solution.
BCC ridership has suffered since the route was changed in 2015 to no longer stop at Durham Station (the city's transit hub and the route's busiest stop) in order for the bus to make stops more frequently and maintain an on-time schedule. According to GoDurham, the BCC's daily ridership went from about seventeen hundred daily riders in 2014, to about thirteen hundred now.
"Thirteen hundred people per day is not nothing. It's distressing that these inefficiencies are being put on our residents," said council member Vernetta Alston.
The bus is supposed to come every seventeen minutes, but riders say the schedule is unreliable. Under the proposal
, three buses would serve the current BCC stops, stopping every fifteen minutes. Traversing downtown would require changing buses.
Route 2 would use BCC stops from Durham Station to Alston Avenue before continuing on to Brier Creek. Route 12 would be tweaked to use the same BCC stops downtown, rather than traveling on N.C. 147 as it does now. Route 11 would use BCC stops from Duke and the VA hospital to Durham Station.
Council member Charlie Reece has advocated for adding Durham Station back to the line since seeing the drop in ridership.
"I'm very, very frustrated with the idea that we cut Durham Station out of the line in order to try to improve on-time performance, it didn't do that, and we’re using the drop in ridership that accompanied cutting Durham Station out of the line not to put Durham Station back in, but to say 'let’s get rid of it'," Reece said.
Council members said they'd like to see a fare-free service that does a better job of reaching those who need it, perhaps by making a different route free, offering free boarding at some stops during certain times of the day, or extending free rides, which teenaged students currently receive, to another group.
"I think it's an open question as to which way we go from here ... I know that one of the things you're going to hear from a lot of people is that we don't want to get rid of this free bus service. I get that, but is this really the best thing to do with our resources? Are there things that would move us in the direction of more free service that are different than that?" said Mayor Steve Schewel, adding that the council could vote to raise taxes to increase bus service.
Council member DeDreana Freeman, who lives near the end of the line in Golden Belt, said beyond funding constraints and low ridership "there's still a completely inequitable approach that's been taken around developing this and moving forward."
"The conversation has always been tenuous about stopping right before you go into East Durham on that bus line," she said.
If the BCC is eliminated, she said, there should be free stops "regardless of how hard it might be" and more ways to accommodate people if they cannot pay.
"Really it's about addressing the issues of vulnerability for folks around transportation," Freeman said. "If someone is willing to say that they want to get on the bus for free, you should just allow it. If it's at the point where they're making that request, we have to figure out a way to make sure that's feasible."
Council member Mark Anthony Middleton said he grew up riding public transit and appreciated the "egalitarian nature" of it. "Next to me would be a homeless person and then a millionaire stock broker at the same time all negotiating the city," he recalled.
He'd like to see more evening and cross-town bus service —and eventually twenty-four hour service — so that people can not only get to work, but also enjoy the city.
Diane Standaert, chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission relayed input from BCC riders. The commission, along with SpiritHouse, have advocated for improving the fare-free service to "focus on serving the Durham community, not just Duke," for example by extending to North Carolina Central University and East Durham.
Standaert said she has been taking the BCC to hear what riders think of the potential changes. No one she spoke to was aware of the proposal.
"There's a consistent feeling that a lot of people depend on the BCC and a lot of people would be hurt," she said.
The council asked staff to look into alternatives to eliminating fare-free service. A final draft of the plan is expected to be ready in April.