Kids and teenage students ride GoDurham buses for free. Buses were fare free during voting hours on Election Day this past fall. And there’s the Bull City Connector, a fare-free route downtown.
The free fares for students and voters were new, but the Bull City Connector could soon be gone. It costs $1.2 million a year, and GoDurham would rather spend the money on increasing service to busy areas and other changes.
This summer, the Bull City Connector, which started in 2010 as a way to get Duke students to come downtown, may make its last stop. But a new, different fare-free bus route could take its place, and city leaders are talking about working toward making all bus rides free all the time.
Duke had been paying $300,000 of the $1.2 million annual cost for the Bull City Connector. The university cut its contribution to $150,000 this year, and nothing for next year. The university has its own bus system.
The Durham Human Relations Commission wants the Bull City Connector to focus on serving the Durham community, not Duke. Its most recent report, two years ago, also called for adding the Durham Station and Duke South stops back to the route.
Diane Standaert, chair of the Human Relations Commission, said ending the Bull City Connector would hurt poor people’s ability to get around downtown “at a time things in Durham are getting more expensive.”
Also, downtown Durham doesn’t have a problem attracting visitors anymore.
There are three competing bike-share programs downtown. New restaurants open every month, and the skyline has featured multiple construction cranes for at least a year. The 26-story One City Center is rising fast in the heart of downtown. The city just won a Bloomberg grant to find a way to get people to take transit – like buses – to and from downtown. At a community conversation in January, residents told city and county leaders that they want more bus routes, and free bus routes to be transit priorities.
City Manager Tom Bonfield said the City Council would make a decision in May about keeping the Bull City Connector or making another route fare free. He said they could continue the Bull City Connector into the summer until something new is ready. He also said the city could look at fare-free stops or intermittent free service by stop.
GoDurham pitched the idea of dropping the Bull City Connector in its short-range transit plan to the council last week, citing low ridership. Between 1,300 and 1,500 riders use the Connector daily, according to GoDurham, compared to busier routes that get 3,000 riders a day.
But the City Council batted that back at them.
Council member Vernetta Alston said 1,300 to 1,500 people riding the bus a day “is not nothing.”
Council member Charlie Reece said other routes may be better suited for being fare free, or certain stops at certain times of day. Reece said he’s disappointed that low ridership would be used as a reason to cut the Connector.
With Duke out of the picture as a factor in the route, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said they can look at what route or routes should be fare free, as well as start planning to move toward a fare-free bus system in the future.
“What category would we want to look at for free service? Think about that,” said Mayor Steve Schewel. He said he hasn’t made up his mind.
Harmon Crutchfield, assistant transportation director, pointed out that they added the free fare for students.
“That’s good. Now what’s the next thing?” Schewel said.
Council member DeDreana Freeman lives near the Bull City Connector’s last stop in Golden Belt, on East Main Street. It stops right before going into East Durham, she said.
Freeman said that if the Connector goes away, there needs to be fare-free stops in place “regardless of how hard it would be.”
“Really it’s about addressing issues of vulnerability around transportation,” she said. “If a person asks to get on bus for free, we need to allow it.”
Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton wants to eventually take the bus system to 24 hours a day.
“We can raise taxes and provide more bus service,” Schewel said.
Standaert said she was glad to hear that council wants to keep a fare free bus route. In the Human Relations Commission’s 2015 study, many Connector riders were African-American and made less than $25,000 a year.
She’ll take the issue of GoDurham’s short-range transit plan to the Human Relations Commission at its next meeting March 6.