Raleigh state workers lose Go Pass bus benefit

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 3, 2013 

— For Raleigh-based state government workers who endured four years without a pay raise, the free bus pass was a nice benefit while it lasted.

It’s called the Go Pass, and it’s good for free rides on Triangle Transit and Capital Area Transit buses.

Or it was, anyway, until the program was eliminated for state employees at the end of December. State Department of Administration officials said they had run low on money, derived from visitor and employee parking garage fees, to pay for the Go Passes.

“People relied on it,” said Mark Petermann, 62, who lives in North Raleigh and commuted by bus to his job with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “People liked it.”

Now about 1,600 state workers – who had enjoyed free bus rides occasionally or every day for nearly a decade – are figuring out how they’ll get to work: Pump the gas, or buy the pass?

“I had to drive to work today because I can’t afford a bus pass until I get paid Friday,” said Joan Tuttle, 54, of Zebulon, who works for the Division of Motor Vehicles. She’ll start paying $85 a month for her new pass.

That’s the price for 31 days of travel on Triangle Transit express buses, popular with commuters who stream into Raleigh from Chapel Hill, Durham, Wake Forest and eastern Wake County. A single express trip is $2.50.

Pam Williams of Raleigh, who works for the Department of Revenue, says she’ll have to replace her Go Pass with a 31-day CAT pass. It’ll cost her $36 each month. A CAT trip is $1.

“That’s another expense for me when I’m not getting any more income,” said Williams, 58. “I kind of depended on it.”

Several universities and local governments still have Go Pass contracts with regional transit agencies – as part of their efforts to help workers and students find alternatives to driving solo in their cars, and to reduce traffic congestion and demand for parking. The employers pay discount rates that range from 40 percent to 55 percent of a full fare, single ticket.

275,000 trips a year

Raleigh-based state workers with Go Passes accounted for as many as 200,000 CAT trips and 75,000 Triangle Transit trips a year. Their share of all CAT traffic peaked at 4.6 percent in 2007.

The bus pass program was started as an effort to cut traffic congestion in the state government complex downtown, with about 8,000 state employees, and to reduce demand for state parking.

It had little effect on the parking demand, partly because parking is so cheap for state workers in downtown Raleigh. They get individually assigned spaces for $10 or $15 a month – a fraction of commercial rates that run as high as $150 a month on Fayetteville Street.

The employee parking fee has not changed since 1979. Most of the 1,600 state workers who had Go Passes in October also paid to reserve parking spaces.

Catherine Reeve, the state parking director, said revenues from employee and visitor parking have remained fairly steady at about $1.8 million a year. But there have been new demands on the money – for parking garage upkeep and to pay debt service on the Green Square parking garage that opened last year.

Go Pass payments reached $176,000 last year, but the program ended after Reeve had only $50,000 available for the transit service this year.

“There’s only so much blood you can get out of a turnip,” Reeve said.

‘Bad’ policy

David King, Triangle Transit’s general manager, says the state needs to rethink its employee parking program.

Parking fees could be increased, King said, or the system of reserved spaces could be ended. Because as much as 20 percent of reserved spaces go unused each day, lots and garages could accommodate more employees using unreserved spaces.

“It seems to me the whole problem is the state does not have a holistic way of looking at state employee commuting,” King said. “It’s bad public policy and bad environmental policy. It’s inefficient. It’s out of the mainstream with what other employers are doing.”

NCSU workers pay $25 a year for their Go Passes. Eric Knisley of Carrboro, who works at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, says he wouldn’t mind paying a small fee for his monthly pass.

“The hard part for me was going from zero to $85,” said Knisley, 51. “If there would be something to lighten that blow, it would be good.”

Reeve said it would take action from the legislature or the incoming administration of Gov.-elect Pat McCrory to change the parking system or generate new money for bus passes.

State workers received a 1.2 percent pay increase this year, their first raise since 2008.

‘A big financial change’

Caroline M. Elliott of Durham works as an assistant public defender in Wake County and knows she could earn more money with a private law firm.

So the Go Pass felt like “one of the perks of going into a public-interest field,” she said.

She hasn’t decided whether to buy the $85 pass.

“It’s a real problem because it will be a big financial change for us,” Elliott said. “With the pass, my husband and I were able to go down to one car. That won’t be possible if I’m not taking the bus.”

Petermann, the DENR worker, said state and private employers will need to encourage more transit use starting next summer, when a three-year project to rebuild Raleigh’s southern Beltline is expected to produce chronic traffic jams.

“Some of these folks will go back to driving to work,” Petermann said. “Unfortunately, with a lot of construction that’s going to be happening around the area, that’s just going to make things worse.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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