Free downtown R-Line under fire as Raleigh hikes bus fares

07/21/2014 9:31 PM

07/21/2014 9:32 PM

As the city’s bus service prepares to hike commuter fares by 50 percent, Raleigh continues to spend $1 million each year operating a free downtown circulator bus that serves far fewer riders than other transit routes.

Five years after the R-Line began its loop around downtown, Raleigh leaders say it’s time to consider changes to the service – including a modified route and a fare for the visitors and residents who ride the bus.

“I do think it’s an equity issue,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “I don’t think people will mind paying something if it’s a nominal fee.”

The R-Line’s fare-free status is a hard pill for other Capital Area Transit riders to swallow. Starting this fall, they’ll pay 25 cents more for each ride – a 25 percent increase from the current $1 fare. The price will increase again in 2016 to $1.50 per ride and $3 for a one-day pass.

That means a commuter who rides CAT buses five days a week will pay $260 more each year by 2016 – getting to work will cost a total of $780.

Transit officials say the fare hike is needed to address the rising costs of fuel, maintenance and employee salaries. It’s expected to generate $338,457 in the fiscal year that begins this month and $482,784 the following year.

The burden of the fare increase will fall most heavily on Raleigh’s poorest residents. A study conducted by CAT determined that 35 percent of its riders have an annual household income of less than $10,000. After the 2016 fare increase, a two-adult household making $10,000 or less could spend at least 15 percent of their joint income to ride the bus.

About 55 percent of CAT riders have an annual household income below $15,000, and 73 percent make less than $25,000. And 72 percent of CAT riders are black, according to the study.

Making low-income residents pay more while the downtown crowd rides free to restaurants and nightclubs angers Octavia Rainey, the longtime activist who heads the North Central Citizens Advisory Council.

“It’s unjust, it’s unfair and it’s downright racist,” Rainey said. CAT riders, she said, already “struggle just to pay $2 for a round-trip ticket.”

Rainey also points to other inequities between the two bus services: The R-Line runs until 2 a.m. on weekends, while the city’s busiest bus line on Capital Boulevard shuts down at midnight. Most CAT buses run less frequently – hourly in some cases – outside rush hour, but the R-Line consistently arrives every 15 minutes. And the R-Line once offered free cupcakes and cookies to its riders on Valentine’s Day.

“How come they don’t offer all of us cookies and cupcakes on Valentine’s Day?” Rainey said.

‘A totally different place’

The R-Line first rolled out in 2009 with then-Mayor Charles Meeker taking the inaugural 3-mile loop from the Raleigh Convention Center to Glenwood South and the Warehouse District. The city paid $565,000 apiece for three bright-green, hybrid electric buses to distinguish the service from CAT’s orange-and-white fleet.

It immediately drew some complaints from CAT bus regulars who said they’d also like a free ride. But Meeker said that because most R-Line riders were only going a few blocks, it didn’t make sense to charge a fare. And the bus was designed to entice out-of-towners visiting the Raleigh Convention Center to get out and see the city.

Back then, downtown was in the early stages of its revitalization. The city hadn’t yet installed on-street parking meters to free up the prime spaces. City Plaza and the Red Hat Amphitheater were under construction. And the hottest new nightspots were Busy Bee Café, Foundation and Boylan Bridge Brewpub – which now seem like veterans of the downtown scene.

“Downtown was a totally different place,” Baldwin said. “We’ve gone beyond wanting to reach people who are coming to a convention.”

Route could change

Downtowners rode the R-Line a total of 164,000 times in its first year. The ridership figures spiked to nearly 305,000 by 2012 as the green buses traversed busier streets with more restaurants and bars. For some residents of downtown’s newest apartments and condos, the R-Line became a primary mode of transportation.

“I really think that service has been instrumental in contributing to the revitalization of downtown,” said David Diaz, Downtown Raleigh Alliance president. “As our downtown becomes more dense and each of these districts becomes a destination, people want to go from one destination to the next.”

But as downtown has changed, the R-Line’s route and schedule remains largely the same as that of the first ride in 2009. The circular route has drawn complaints, because a rider hopping on in the Warehouse District has to travel through Moore Square and Seaboard Station to reach Glenwood South.

Baldwin, who lives near Seaboard Station, has seen that problem firsthand. “I can walk from the Cotton Mill to Moore Square quicker than I can take the R-Line,” she said. “If that’s the case, we have some issues in our routing.”

Ridership numbers for the R-Line have fallen slightly. The bus provided 284,000 rides in 2013, and it’s down even more for the first half of 2014 with 125,000 rides so far this year.

7 routes more popular

The free status of the R-Line hasn’t enticed more riders than the bus system’s busiest paid routes. In the fiscal year that ended in June, seven other bus lines drew more riders than the R-Line.

Raleigh’s most popular bus route – the No. 1 Capital Boulevard line – had nearly three times as many riders as the R-Line in the 2013-14 fiscal year, providing about 760,000 rides between downtown and Triangle Town Center.

On traditional bus routes, CAT typically bases the frequency of service on ridership numbers. By that metric, the R-Line’s ridership is most similar to the No. 12 Method Road line, which runs every 30 minutes at peak times and once an hour otherwise.

That discrepancy in bus hours angers some Raleigh residents who live outside downtown. Morton Lurie, who lives in Northwest Raleigh, said he stopped attending N.C. Symphony concerts when he reached the age where he stopped driving at night.

Lurie wishes he could take a city bus downtown for performances, but buses in his corner of town don’t run late enough. And while the R-Line ran on July 4 to serve the city’s Independence Day festival, all other routes were shut down for the holiday.

Lurie bristles at the idea that his property taxes subsidize a free bus he can’t use. “The R-Line is just outrageous,” he said. “The city has so many great ideas to spend money downtown that the rest of the city pays for.”

Next stop: Cameron Village?

Diaz said he’d support a fare on the R-Line, but he’d like it to accompany tweaks to the route and scheduling.

“If we’ve got the right route and it’s a quality route, it becomes easier to talk about whether we charge or not,” Diaz said.

He added that it’s important to study ridership numbers and survey the downtown community to determine the most popular destinations and times of day. “I think we’ve got to look at that and figure out what’s the real purpose of this service,” he said.

But Diaz said that city leaders shouldn’t expect fares to cover the full cost of the R-Line. “I don’t know of any downtown circulator in the country that pays for itself,” he said.

Nor does any bus route in Raleigh. While fares on the popular Capital Boulevard line are projected to bring in $290,820 this year, the route costs $1.46 million to operate.

Baldwin said fare revenue could help Raleigh extend the R-Line’s service to Cameron Village, where more than 1,000 new apartment residents will move in this fall. “That seems to be a logical connection point,” she said.

Diaz, however, cautioned that Cameron Village service “would mean doubling or tripling the current cost. ... I think the community has to weigh in on this.” He added that his organization – which is funded by a special tax on downtown properties – can’t afford to chip in beyond the $5,000 it provides annually for the R-Line.

A study of the R-Line service is part of the city’s new downtown plan, which is expected to be complete this fall. Baldwin said the council wants to hear those recommendations before it takes action on fares or other changes to the R-Line.

“I think we need to wait to see what the study says,” she said. “They’ve talked to 1,000 people, so they might have some suggestions.”

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