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Taxpayers foot 99% of the Pittsboro Express cost

By Donna Kelly
Posted Monday, January 24, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - Why did the Board of Commissioners decide not to continue funding the Pittsboro Express Bus after the current contract runs out? Let’s look at some background and numbers.

Chatham County is primarily a rural county. Although we have a relatively high population density in some parts of the county, it's still far below what is necessary to sustain mass transit without tremendous subsidies. We should be focusing on solutions that fit the unique conditions within Chatham County, not trying to use programs designed for different areas. If the county is going to invest in anything, it should be investing in Chatham Transit, which uses smaller buses or large vans to run a system more suited to the rural nature of Chatham County. Chatham Transit had just started building a regular route to Chapel Hill right before the Express Bus was started. Why did we encourage an outside transportation agency to supplant the efforts of a local agency?

Let’s look at the public record as recorded in the minutes of the Chatham Board of Commissioners.

Why did we encourage an outside transportation agency to supplant the efforts of a local agency?

The first mention I’ve found of the Pittsboro Express (PX) bus is at the 9-15-08 regular meeting. Rita Spina, on behalf of CCEC makes some comments about a DOT presentation on development of the 15-501 corridor and describes the desperate need for bus service. In response, George Lucier mentions the Pittsboro Express bus proposal that is being developed. During the commissioner reports section of the 11-17-08 regular meeting, Chairman Lucier expressed concern that there were two public meetings scheduled about the bus, but they were scheduled without coordination with the board of commissioners and both meetings conflicted with Chatham County board of commissioner events. This calls into question the claim that this is a joint project and indicates it’s a Chapel Hill Transit project.

The first official presentation of the program was during the 12-01-08 regular meeting. During that meeting Chapel Hill Transit officials explained that they heard about a grant opportunity in July and applied for it. They were awarded the grant and had been working on gathering information and developing a proposal for service. It appears there had been very little discussion with Chatham Transit at this point. It’s also clear that this proposal was developed around the grant that had been received that would largely fund it. The grant was a federal reverse commute grant designed to help bring workers into Chapel Hill. Although it might evolve into something that would truly benefit Chatham County, the purpose of the grant that was the foundation for the whole program was to help Chapel Hill.

The purpose of the federal grant that was the foundation for the whole program was to help Chapel Hill.

The work session on 2-2-09 was the first detailed discussion about the proposed bus route and the county’s financial obligation. The discussion started off with concern by the new director of Chatham Transit that the Pittsboro to Chapel Hill route was their largest and that the new route would negatively impact them. This is especially important in light of recent discussion on non-profit funding in the county. Chatham Transit relies heavily on county funding for administrative costs. They receive a lot of federal and state funding to provide transportation to low income residents for medical transportation. They would like to expand their revenue sources. One good way would be to offer more services to the general public and generate more revenues from fares. If the county is going to help fund bus service it should be focused on people who have no other means of transportation, not subsidize people who just want an alternative and allow them to save some money.

When the bus was first proposed it was supposed to be for a six month trial after which it would be reevaluated. Although there were never any official figures set for what would constitute success, discussion at several BOC meetings suggested the bus would need at least fifty riders per day to consider continuing with the contract. This was based on all riders paying the full fare of $3 per ride or $65 per month. In reality almost all of the riders are UNC employees who receive free passes that UNC buys for only $155 per year. At $155 per year instead of the expected $780 per year we need a lot more than 50 riders per day for the route to be considered viable. This was a basic flaw in all of the county discussions about the bus and its potential viability.

There wasn’t any real evaluation until it was time to renew the contract with Chapel Hill Transit for another year. The actual budget breakdown for the upcoming year as presented at the 7-19-10 BOC meeting by Chapel Hill Transit:

Federal $96450 50%

County $46050 24%

UNC(state) $30000 16%

Pittsboro $18000 9%

Riders $ 2400 1%

Although most of the subsidies come from the federal and state level, that is still taxpayer money. We can’t continue to ask the rest of the county taxpayers to pay almost $1000 per person to help subsidize their commuting expenses. Many of these people are struggling to pay their own commuting expenses if they even have a job.

The main justification for a program should not be that there’s a grant for part of it. This was not a program that was originated by the county. Chapel Hill Transit developed the program and the grant that was the primary funding source was designated to help bring commuters into Chapel Hill. Because of that the program was not designed primarily with the interest of Chatham County citizens in mind or for the real benefit of Chatham County. When resources are scarce we have to direct them to programs that are focused on Chatham County. If we invest anything in transit it should be invested in a program, such as Chatham Transit, that is suited to the rural nature of Chatham County and help it to grow as the county grows and can sustain something more ambitious.

Many of these concerns were expressed repeatedly in many forums when the bus route was first proposed and approved. The former commissioners made their decision to fund the program despite the concerns of many citizens. The current commissioners have looked at the issue and decided in favor of the much larger number of county citizens that do not benefit from the bus route.

It’s possible UNC can establish an arrangement with Chatham Transit similar to what they worked out with Chapel Hill Transit to provide passes. By giving notice now there is plenty of time for other options such as this to be considered. If this doesn’t develop perhaps the current riders of the bus, now that they’ve made a connection could establish car or vanpools to help with commuting. In the future the Pittsboro Express route might be feasible but the numbers show that at this time, in Chatham County, it’s not an effective use of resources.

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Taxpayers foot 99% of the Pittsboro Express cost
Minutes of a BOC meeting calls into question the claim that the Pittsboro Express is a joint project and indicates it’s a Chapel Hill Transit project.