Press Release

Triangle transit systems have little impact on congestion

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It’s time for the state to put the brakes on funding for public transit systems across North Carolina. That’s a major recommendation in a new Policy Report prepared for the John Locke Foundation.

The state’s 10 largest transit systems are eating up a larger chunk of the state budget, but they do little to meet their stated goals, the report says. “Contrary to popular belief, the 10 systems have a miniscule impact on congestion reduction or air quality improvement,” said study author David Hartgen, Professor of Transportation Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Overall, the 10 transit systems contribute just 0.28 percent of the overall daily regional travel miles, according to Hartgen’s report. That’s the figure you get when you factor in bus riders who have no access to cars. Hartgen considers that figure the “likely regional transit impact.” Among Triangle systems, university student fee-supported Chapel Hill buses have the highest impact (2.15 percent). That figure is more than twice as high as any other bus system in the state. In Durham, the impact is 0.24 percent. Raleigh and Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) buses have an impact of 0.13 percent.

Across the 10 systems, riders contribute just 17.5 percent of the costs of the transit systems through fares. The percentage is highest in Chapel Hill at 44 percent. In Durham, the figure is 18 percent. It’s 17 percent for Raleigh and 12 percent for TTA.

Taxpayers pay an average $2.56 subsidy for every funded public transit trip among the 10 largest systems. Chapel Hill has the lowest taxpayer subsidy in the state ($1.05), while TTA has the highest ($6.90). The figure is $2.61 for Raleigh and $1.98 for Durham. TTA has the state’s lowest operating cost per vehicle mile at $2.34. Durham buses ($3.57) also operate at costs below the state average ($4.16), while Chapel Hill ($4.40) and Raleigh ($4.66) buses operate with higher costs.

Some public transit systems are relying more heavily on state funding. Hartgen’s projections show the state will be paying more than 25 percent of the operating costs for six of the 10 transit systems by 2010. Systems with the largest projected state taxpayer subsidy that year will be Wilmington, 45.1 percent; Asheville, 30.7 percent; Chapel Hill, 30.2 percent; Raleigh, 26.6 percent; Durham, 26.3 percent; and Triangle Transit Authority, 25.9 percent.

Hartgen’s report recommends that the state cut back state support for local transit systems, while ensuring that riders pay more for transit service. Local transit officials should also rewrite their mission statements and long-range plans to reflect their key role in helping people who need mobility. The report also calls for more privatization of transit systems, and it asks the General Assembly to delay funding for light rail systems in Charlotte, the Triangle, and the Triad until Charlotte’s South Boulevard corridor confirms usage expectations. The 10-mile Charlotte light rail line, currently under construction for $428 million, is expected to open in late 2007.

Specific recommendations for the Raleigh system include scrapping plans to influence “sustainable regional development” and instead focusing on helping people with basic mobility needs; reviewing route services for the five highest-volume routes; asking riders to pay 25 percent of costs; revisiting the possibility of consolidation with other systems in the region; improving basic bus services through inter-city and express-commuter services; and coordinating with schools and human service agencies.

For the Durham system, specific recommendations include revising the present vision of being “the people’s choice for transportation” to focusing on helping people with mobility needs; revisiting opportunities for consolidation; reducing dependence on state support; asking riders to shoulder 25 percent of costs; developing a vision for inter-city bus service; coordinating with human service agencies and school systems; and purchasing smaller vehicles.

For the Chapel Hill system, the report notes that the circumstances of operation (free-to-use service supported by student fees, limited parking, and a walking environment) cannot be easily duplicated elsewhere. The report recommends that Chapel Hill revise its long-range transit plan in light of unlikely light rail plans; re-visit consolidation opportunities; possibly extending the “free to use” model to Raleigh, TTA, and Durham; strengthening inter-city connections; and implementing route performance criteria.

For the Triangle Transit Authority, the report recommends shelving grandiose plans for expensive light rail service and instead focusing on practical rapid bus service for regional commuters and those with mobility needs; revising long-range regional plans that rely inordinately on light rail; reviewing the need for toll-based and high-occupancy vehicle lanes in several corridors; revisiting consolidation opportunities; divesting unneeded property; reviewing tax support needs; and seriously considering adoption of the “free to ride” Chapel Hill model for unemployed job-seekers and human service agency clients.

“The time has come to re-assess the direction of these systems and their roles in each community’s transportation picture,” Hartgen said.

The report examines performance trends for the state’s 10 largest transit systems from 1997 to 2003. It also forecasts performance through 2010. Hartgen reviewed urban systems in Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Fayetteville, Asheville, and Wilmington. The report also examines the university student-oriented system in Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Durham’s commuter-oriented Triangle Transit Authority.

The 10 largest systems carry about 41 million riders each year. The services cost $127 million. The number of riders increased 37 percent from 1997 to 2003, while the total amount of service increased 64 percent. Operating costs doubled during that same time period.

State and federal taxpayers are bearing more of the costs, according to the report. The state’s share of transit operating costs grew from 11 percent in 1997 to nearly 16 percent in 2003. In the next four years, that percentage could grow to 19 percent. “By 2010, overall operating costs will exceed $200 million,” Hartgen said. “Most systems are increasing their dependence on state and federal government and are reducing support from riders and local government.”

While the state and federal transportation bill is growing, the transit systems are not drawing people away from the cars that clog city roads, the report says. A typical trip on a public transit system is slower than a trip by car. Many transit riders are lower-income workers who have no access to cars.

“Riders use the systems primarily as ‘stepping stones’ for improving personal mobility,” Hartgen said. “The systems serve less than one-half of 1 percent of regional commuting and impact about one-quarter of 1 percent of regional air pollution or congestion.”

That’s why Hartgen endorses “an across-the-board reassessment of the role of transit services in the state’s largest regions.” He makes a series of recommendations for state and local leaders.

First, the state should tie state funding to guarantees that local transit systems will rewrite their mission statements and long-range plans. Those plans should delete all references to reducing congestion and curbing air pollution. “Transit systems should change their plans and goals to reflect their service as important mobility providers for low-income citizens who are striving to move up the economic ladder,” Hartgen said.

Second, North Carolina should limit state funding to no more than 25 percent of the transit system’s total operating costs. And riders should pay at least 25 percent of the costs through their fares.

Third, increases in state funding should be tied to inflation and growth in the number of riders. Fourth, state and local officials should look for ways to privatize transit systems.

Fifth, the state should limit local requests for capital expansion. Sixth, lawmakers should delay state funding for light rail proposals in the Triangle, Charlotte, and the Triad until local transit officials show that actual usage figures confirm their earlier estimates.

“Most systems have stated visions that show considerable disconnect with the reality of their operations,” Hartgen said. “The most serious weakness is the wide disparity between the very low usage and the vision of impact on community travel patterns and environmental impacts.”

David Hartgen’s Policy Report, “Policy versus Performance: Directions for North Carolina’s Largest Transit Systems,” is at the Locke Foundation’s web site. For more information, please contact David Hartgen at 704-687-4308 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact JLF communications director Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].

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We are North Carolina’s Most Trusted and Influential Source of Common Sense. The John Locke Foundation was created in 1990 as an independent, nonprofit think tank that would work “for truth, for freedom, and for the future of North Carolina.” The Foundation is named for John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher whose writings inspired Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders.

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