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There is so much energy and good will for a bus service between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill

By Tim Keim
Posted Thursday, March 19, 2009

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Pittsboro, NC - Getting around in Chatham County without a car is difficult. With little employment to anchor Pittsboro residents to their home turf, folks scatter in all directions every morning to earn their daily bread. About 13% of the workforce at UNC and UNC Hospital travel the 15-501 corridor to reach Chapel Hill. Some carpool, but most jump into their shiny metal boxes solo and inefficiently burn hydrocarbons to get to work. But a ticket to ride may soon replace the solitary commute.

Chatham County (CC), The Town of Pittsboro (PBO), Chatham Transit Network (CTN), and Chapel Hill Transit are close to commencing express bus service from Pittsboro to Chapel Hill and back three times a day. But the local mass transit process hasn't been without its fits and starts; and financial details between Pittsboro and Chatham County remain unresolved.

In August 2004, two Siler City grassroots groups, Mujeres Mejorando El Futuro (Women Improving the Future) and Voices for Action (VOA), issued a transportation draft proposal that stemmed from a survey they conducted of 368 subjects about travel needs. Both groups were trained in data collection techniques by UNC Chapel Hill. Their proposal was written in painstaking detail with suggested routes, times and frequency. Some of the route recommendations were implemented by Chatham Transit, but communication to the community and execution of the new routes was poorly handled and the plan failed.

Chatham Transit Network (CTN) now has a new executive director and advisory board. Board member, Marcia Perritt, happily relates that CTN hopes to revive the work done by Mujeres and VOA for the routes in Siler City. Additionally Ms. Perritt mentioned that new Executive Director, Dale Olbrich, is in consultation with Chapel Hill Transit to determine the need for a feeder route from Siler City to Pittsboro.

Eventually, County Commissioner Tom Vanderbeck and Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, chairman of the Regional Planning Organization, want to extend service through Siler to Lee County and along the Hwy. 64 passage as well.

With so much energy and good will among the team members, what could possibly prevent this plan from success? Of course, you know it's going to come down to the money.

Half the cost for the eighteen month experiment will come from a federal grant. Negotiations between Pittsboro's Town Board and Chatham County Commissioners will settle the disposition of the $176,356 balance. This figure doesn't include the estimated fares contributed by riders, which are proposed to be $3.00 dollars one way or an unlimited pass for $65.00 a month. The current negotiations have Pittsboro kicking in about a quarter to a third of the cost and the county two-thirds to three-quarters.

Chatham County Commissioner Sally Kost, who is “totally committed to mass transit for Chatham”, did some number crunching and estimated that if only 103 people per day rode the bus paying the $65.00 monthly fare, Pittsboro would contribute about $1,000 a month to the enterprise. That assumes Pittsboro's share at 25%.

Because of Pittsboro's commendable frugality, an adequate surplus of municipal funds exist to make this investment.

From what I can gather, a favorable consensus has developed on the county commission, but the thrifty Pittsboro Town Board is hesitating. PBO Commissioner Gene Brooks admits that the county “has made a generous offer,” but he hasn't made up his mind yet. Mr. Brooks says that there's been “surprisingly little discussion about the proposed service”. Commissioner Chris Walker told me, “I'm not opposed to mass transit, but you're talking to a conservative banker. I'm not in favor subsidizing transit now. If it's not a necessary function, now is not the time to do it”. Fellow PBO Commissioners Pamela Baldwin and Clinton Bryan echoed Mr. Walker.

It is inconceivable to me that local elected representatives would allow such an opportunity to slip through their fingers.

“This is a very limited financial exposure” as Dale Olbrich, Executive Director of CTN points out. Furthermore, Olbrich argues the case that “this service will make jobs in Chapel Hill accessible to Chatham citizens without cars, thus acting as an economic stimulus”. Besides, any party can pull out of the agreement with a 90 day notice.

I would think a federal grant to pay half the cost would be eagerly seized.

Gasoline is sure to eclipse its most recent pinnacle in the near future, so this is the perfect time to get mass transit working for Chatham County. The bus would also reduce air pollution in Chatham by taking a significant number of cars off the road. This is a win win situation across the board.

This transit proposal has wide support from the public and potential partners all over the region. If Pittsboro and Chatham County are unable to summon the will and cooperation to invest in our transportation infrastructure future, we will be less able to participate in the thriving economic intercourse of the greater North Carolina Piedmont. We'll consign ourselves to a backwater, bedroom community status that will leave us limping into limitation rather than striding confidently into prosperity.

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There is so much energy and good will for a bus service between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill
18 months of bus service between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill will cost over $352,000.

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