DURHAM — Two DATA buses that make the Route 11 loop from downtown to Duke University and Hillsborough Road were, as usual, wildly out of kilter Wednesday afternoon - one running 10 minutes behind schedule and the other 10 minutes ahead.
Route 11 is one of the worst performers in an ungainly urban bus system hobbled by packed buses here, nearly empty buses there, and frequent delays everywhere.
Triangle Transit, which took over management of the Durham Area Transit Authority in 2010, this week proposed sweeping route changes intended to get those buses running on time.
These days, 32 percent of DATA's buses arrive more than five minutes late. That means riders have longer waits at neighborhood stops. They miss their connections when they try to change buses at Durham Station, the downtown transit hub, and other transfer points.
"Which is unacceptable," said John Tallmadge, Triangle Transit's commuter resources director. "We're setting a goal of 90 percent on-time performance for every route in the system."
To serve its routes faster, DATA will make many of them shorter. Route 11, a 15-mile circuit that runs late most afternoons, will be trimmed by three miles. Another route will be reshaped to pick up some of the leftovers.
For other routes, Triangle Transit proposes to cut out loops through some neighborhoods and eliminate zig-zag digressions down side streets.
This sounds like a good idea to DATA rider Janice Easterling, 45.
"They should have shorter routes," Easterling said. "The bus takes too long. Every bus you take, it's going to be an hour to get you to your destination."
Triangle Transit will solicit customer comments at public meetings next week, and planners will board the buses to talk with riders as they travel.
The Durham City Council is expected to receive the final proposal in June. Most changes, if approved, would not take effect before next January.
Improvements and tradeoffs
Some improvements are promised, too, including more frequent and direct service to Durham Tech, N.C. Central University and the Streets at Southpoint mall.
But there are tradeoffs that already have prompted concerns. An undetermined number of stops would be eliminated, and some riders would have to walk an extra block or two to catch the bus.
While the main Durham Tech campus would see better bus service, DATA would eliminate an extended route that delivers only a handful of riders each day to a Durham Tech satellite campus in northern Durham.
DATA buses carry 21,000 riders a day. Tallmadge figures about 130 people each day would be seriously inconvenienced by the changes, having to walk more than one-quarter mile to a bus stop.
Triangle Transit plans to add bus service to Riverside High, the only high school now without a bus stop, but it also proposes to eliminate service at Jordan High.
"We didn't have enough resources to continue to serve Jordan and have everything else run on time," Cha'ssem Anderson, a Triangle Transit planner, said Wednesday at a public information session at Durham Station.
Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner, asked Triangle Transit to reconsider cutting off bus service for Jordan students. "It's important for students to be able to participate in extra-curricular activities after school and still get home," Reckhow said in an interview. "So they're going to revisit that and see what they can do."
Dorothy McAllister, a home health care worker who rides DATA buses all over the city, said she liked the proposed route changes. She noted a plan for more direct and frequent buses between NCCU and Southpoint, and a new stop for a Walmart recently opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
"If it works out the way they say, it should improve the commute a lot better," said McAllister, 50.