For three years, federal dollars have paid for two Johnston County commuter bus routes into downtown Raleigh. But at the end of June, that program will end with nothing to take its place, frustrating riders and offering Johnston leaders a preview of coming concerns for the county.
The dollars are tied to the rebuild of Interstate 40 in Raleigh and come from the Federal Highway Commission. The money established two morning and evening bus routes in Johnston. One route begins at the Walmart near I-40 and N.C. 42 in the Cleveland community and one at the Walmart on U.S. 70 Business in Clayton.
Neil Davis, director of the Johnston County Area Transit Service, which has been exploring a possible replacement, said the bus routes were created to keep some commuting traffic off the narrowed interstate during the rebuild.
“The idea was that if we could encourage those that commute out to Johnston County and the Triangle to take the bus, that would help mitigate congestion during the Fortify project,” Davis said, using the N.C. Department of Transportation project name for the rebuild. “So (the routes were established) with the stipulation that the funding would end after three years. The end of that three years comes this June 30th.”
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The buses make six trips into Raleigh from the two Johnston County stops each morning and six return trips each evening. A spokesman for GoRaleigh, the transit organization operating the buses, said the two routes combine for about 80 riders per day.
Davis presented a couple life-raft scenarios for the riders once the buses end. In one case, JCATS would take over both routes but reduce the number of trips to three in the morning and three in the evening. That would cost $80,000 to $90,000 a year, Davis said, and require three new small buses, like the ones JCATS uses, at $75,000 apiece, putting Johnston County on the hook for more than $300,000 to start.
County commissioners chairman Jeff Carver said that’s not going to happen, that the county could buy a taxi for each of the riders with the same money.
“I gotta get these things down to the real numbers, and the real numbers aren’t too favorable right now,” said Carver, a banker.
Either way, Davis said it would take at least six months to get buses, meaning even if the numbers did work out, the bus riders will need to find a new way to work right now.
“Bottom line, we can’t do this by July 1,” Davis said.
Davis suggested simply driving to the GoRaleigh park-and-ride lot the White Oak shopping center in Garner and catching the route to and from Raleigh.
While Johnston didn’t paid for the bus routes, this three-year experiment is the county’s first foray into true public transportation. The JCATS bus system currently running in the county has no set routes and works more as a ride service for residents who set pickup times and destinations. While 80 riders might seem trivial now, the number of residents expecting such services could boom in the coming years, as roadway projects make it easier to live in outer counties like Johnston and still work in Raleigh.
That’s what has current riders frustrated – that the county seems to be having little conversation or planning about a transit future for Johnston.
“I’m a bus rider, but I don’t want to talk about the bus,” said Donna Wade, a Johnston resident who says she has a Garner address. “I want to talk about public transportation in general, which includes the bus.”
Wade said riders from inside and outside of Johnston use the Raleigh-bound buses, some catching the bus at Cleveland or Clayton, some from as far away as Goldsboro and Fayetteville.
“It’s not a free ride we’re looking for; we’re looking for continuation,” Wade said. “It’s good for the whole county to find an alternate transportation plan, not just to try and quiet these 50 people down.”
She said many riders pay the $3 fare, while many other riders have their fares picked up by employers. As a funding source, Wade suggested looking to developers, whose rooftops are tied to the transit dilemma traveling back and forth from Raleigh and Research Triangle Park.
“Public transportation should be thought of just like you think of parks and recreation, just like you think of schools,” Wade said. “Everybody doesn’t have schoolchildren, and everybody doesn’t go to the park, but the taxes pay for those things because it’s in the interest of the whole county.”
Carver, the county commissioner, said no transit system in the world pays for itself, that what riders are willing to pay in fares would never come close to covering operating costs, meaning tax dollars prop up trains and buses. Carver admitted that tax-subsidy day is approaching for Johnston, but he seems unconvinced it’s here now.
“We’ve looked at this for years and years,” he said. “When we did a survey, public transportation was at the bottom of the list of things (residents) wanted to do. There’s not a system in the world that pays for itself. It’s not if we ever, it’s when we ever get to that point. I’m not sure 40 riders, I’m not sure 400. You know, what is our magical number?”
Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; @jdrewjackson