Wake County

Could public buses become the go-to method for Wake County students to get to school?

A bicyclist takes off from between two GoRaleigh city buses at the Moore Square station ub downtown Raleigh on Feb. 19, 2016.
A bicyclist takes off from between two GoRaleigh city buses at the Moore Square station ub downtown Raleigh on Feb. 19, 2016. N&O file photo

Some Wake County students could swap out their big yellow school buses for something a little sleeker next year.

The Raleigh City Council wants children ages 13 to 18 to be allowed to ride public buses for free, partly to give families another transportation option to and from school.

Last month, the council directed a subcommittee of Wake’s Transit Planning Advisory Committee to consider offering students the free fares for GoRaleigh buses. But on Tuesday, the council voted to hold off on its plan because a county-wide system of free rides for students could be in place next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

“Their concern was that students traveling into Raleigh from outside Raleigh would not receive the fare on the way in but they would receive it going back,” said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “Their second concern was a safety concern. Some areas on these routes still don’t have sidewalks.”

Some council members said they were frustrated about waiting until next year, because the city has the resources to launch its own free-ride system for kids on GoRaleigh routes in as little as 45 days. It would cost about $150,000 a year.

Children 12 and younger already ride all GoRaleigh buses for free, and teens pay a reduced one-way fare of 60 cents.

The Transit Planning Advisory Committee administers the $2.38 billion set aside as part of the voter-approved Wake County Transit Plan, which calls for additional bus service and also commuter trains. A county-wide program would be funded by the plan.

“Sometimes it’s worth it just to wait and get the funding for a project through some other means,” said Mike Rogers, Raleigh’s transportation director. “That means our own general fund dollars can go to providing more service, more amenities.”

A growing number of families in Wake County are opting for charter schools, which are publicly funded but are not required to offer bus services for students. Many children also attend farther-from-home magnet schools, which are part of the Wake school system.

Raleigh is working with Wake school leaders to see if public transportation could become the go-to method for students to get to school. Some urban areas, including New York City and Baltimore, already rely on public buses and trains for school transportation.

“We want to be able to provide as many transportation and mobility options to the school kids as possible,” Rogers said.

The school system has the biggest transit operation in the county with about 700 buses, he said. GoRaleigh has about 100.

Councilwoman Kay Crowder, the leading advocate for free bus rides for kids, said it “hurt her heart” to not start the service right away. If the transportation committee doesn’t move forward early next year, she said, Raleigh should create its own program.

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan