Welcome to the Archive of The Carrboro Citizen Logo Image

Chatham’s new commuter bus service is a first step toward sustainable public transportation

By Jeffrey Starkweather

Monday morning, my wife, a UNC employee, skipped her usual indoor bicycling exercise. Instead, she walked 23 minutes to the Chatham County Courthouse in downtown Pittsboro to catch a free bus ride to work. Rather than driving her car as usual along U.S. 15-501, she got on a 7:08 a.m. Chapel Hill Transit bus that dropped her off 45 minutes later at the UNC Student Union.

Monday was the start of a weekday commuter bus service between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro. The bus my wife rode was the second of three buses that begin their journey from the courthouse during the morning rush hour. The buses also pick up riders at Lowes in Pittsboro and in Fearrington. They start their return trips from campus at 4:48 p.m. UNC covers the fare for its employees, others pay $3 each way or $65 a month.

By taking the bus daily from Pittsboro, a UNC employee would save about $3,500 a year in transportation expenses (e.g., gas, wear-and-tear based on federal mileage cost rates and parking savings). A non-UNC employee would save $780 less, still about $2,700 a year over driving the entire route in his car. My wife has already been saving since she has been riding the free Chapel Hill Transit bus from the north Chatham UNC lot for more than two years, but she’s saving considerably more now by riding the bus all the way from PBO.

In addition to personal savings, riding the bus will reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, fossil fuel consumption and their carbon footprint. Car insurance costs also will decrease. Riders can spend more of their increased expendable income in Chatham, since they won’t be tempted with out-of-county shopping after work. Automobile accident costs will be significantly reduced. My wife is enjoying having 40 minutes of uninterrupted time to read going to and from work each day.

Thus, if use of this commuter bus grows as expected, it will have a significant positive impact on Chatham’s economy. Beyond this direct economic impact, the success of such a service will help brand Chatham as a green enterprise zone, attracting the type of green industries and creative entrepreneurs that are already beginning to locate and/or incubate here. That was one of the reasons why the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation Board unanimously requested that Chatham County and the Town of Pittsboro financially back this service.

Of course, no successful transit system starts and grows without significant government subsidies. For Chatham, that meant a relatively modest investment of $43,000 for the county and $24,000 for Pittsboro, all allocated without resorting to tax increases or staff reductions. The federal government is investing $176,356 for 18 months. More importantly, this incredible public service is the result of an extraordinary county-town-federal-state partnership with UNC and Chapel Hill Transit, which are providing the buses and subsidizing fares, as well as Lowe’s shopping center, which provide the parking space. Each partner understands the long-term economic, environmental and social benefits a successful transit system will bring to residents, students and/or employees.

Those concerned about these modest public investments should ponder the enormous subsidies governments provide to automobile commuting and sprawl. For years, the federal government paid 90 percent of the cost of state highways. In 2000, $46.5 billion was provided across the nation in government highway subsidies. Only 2 percent of federal transportation dollars was spent on transit.

Others may be concerned that not enough Chatham residents will ride the bus to justify the government subsidies. Ridership, of course, will depend on whether these cost savings and community benefits are marketed effectively. It will also depend on the price of gas, which economists say will continue to rise as worldwide petroleum demand increases and supply decreases. I’m betting that cost-savvy commuters will soon be eagerly hopping on the bus.

Chatham cannot postpone the development of a public-transit policy. Sixty percent of Chatham workers commute to jobs outside the county. More than 4,000 commute to Orange County. Chatham faces enormous sprawl development pressures that will only exacerbate commuting. County leaders’ other commuter mitigation strategies include smart growth, high-paying jobs in Chatham and telecommuting. Even these strategies will be insufficient, given the expected dramatic population growth in eastern Chatham.

Chatham County and the Town of Pittsboro should be applauded for taking the critical first step in developing a sustainable public transportation system. Now every Chatham resident who desires sustainable economic prosperity needs to help it succeed.

Jeffrey Starkweather, a lawyer and Chatham County Economic Development Corporation board member, will teach “Introduction to Sustainable Communities and Public Policy Analysis for Sustainable Communities” this fall at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. He welcomes feedback at jeffreystarkweather (at) earthlink.net

3 Responses

Comments (2)

Comments RSS 2.0 feed | Post a Comment | Trackback URL

  1. Stephanie

    My question is, is the service also including park and ride for those interested in riding but have to commute to the bus depot?

  2. Jenny

    According to the Chapel Hill Transit schedule, there is a park and ride at the Lowe’s just north of town. http://www.townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?page=1220

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Telecommuting News Summary 083109 | Work At Home | Undress4Success