Bus System Sees Ridership Increase, Not Half-Cent Sales Tax

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More people are riding the bus, but that doesn’t mean more buses are coming — at least not immediately.

Raleigh’s bus system experienced a 72 percent ridership increase in the past five years, rising from 351,061 in May 2006 to 482,935 in April 2011.  Capital Area Transit collected $1.5 million more than projected in fares and other revenue. The extra money went back into the city’s general fund.

Yet, thanks to ongoing budget woes, transit officials have no major plans for expansion in the next fiscal year. They say future expansion could be hindered by the same problem, unless more funding is found.

One option is a half-cent sales tax sought for transit expansion. Wake County Commissioners voted against adding the referendum to this year’s ballot, saying they did not want to put the burden on taxpayers during a recession.

Still, with more people riding the bus, transit staff must find ways to accommodate them.

Raleigh Transit Administrator David Eatman said increased use of bus service comes from many factors, mainly rising gas prices and population growth.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Raleigh in 2010 was 403,892 — a 68 percent increase compared to 276,579 in 2000.

AAA reports the average price of fuel in the Raleigh metro area rose 76 percent in one year, from $2.75 per gallon in April 2010 to $3.59 per gallon in April 2011.

Other factors include the economic downturn and commuters choosing more environmentally friendly options.

Capital Area Transit’s Short Range Transit Plan does not rely on the half-cent sales tax to accommodate growing ridership, but uses current resources to better serve riders.

The plan is broken into three one-year phases. During the first year, CAT aims to provide efficient, timely services and shift resources away from the least-productive to the busiest routes, such as those serving Capital Boulevard, WakeMed, and South Saunders Street.

“Because we understand that without an additional source of revenue, the way the economy and all the revenue sources are … we see it getting better, but it’s not going to be a magic turnaround where all of a sudden we’re at 2008 levels again of a revenue stream, so we’re trying to be very realistic with that plan,” Eatman said.

Raleigh Transit Planner Carmalee Scarpitti said the shifting of resources has created coverage holes along routes with fewer riders, such as Briar Creek. A half-cent sales tax would help expand coverage to needed areas, she said.

Capital Area Transit is also working on a 2035 Long Range Bus Transit Plan, which Eatman said “gives voters a quick incentive” for voting in favor of the tax should it be on the ballot in the future. It lists services that could be deployed if the sales tax referendum passes.

The proposed long-range plan includes complementing the future rail service, adding routes, and a countywide extension of commuter and circulator bus service.

Eatman said Capital Area Transit has been lucky enough to not experience significant budget or service cuts thus far.

“I can’t say that’s going to last forever, but hopefully the economy will turn around before we really start having to bite the bullet and make those hard decisions,” he said.

The bus system has maintained its operations with the support of the city. It is seeking additional revenue sources such as grants for capital projects, like additional benches and shelters and plans for its Moore Square station.

Capital Area Transit also completed a new transit operations facility, at 4104 Poole Road, which will replace its current, overcrowded facility. The new location can accommodate the bus system’s future growth, holding up to 200 buses.

It is projected to be the first integrated transit facility to reach Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum status, the highest designation for environmentally sound building practices. It uses natural and motion-sensor room lighting, a geothermal heating and cooling system and recyclable construction materials.

Money for the facility came from federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act along with local and state funds.

Eatman projects major service and frequency changes should the tax referendum pass. If not, he predicts that Capital Area Transit is “still going to see quality transit services …we’re just not going to see very large increases in service.”

“Again, unless revenue streams to municipalities or the city of Raleigh were really to increase, and we’re just not seeing that in the short term, but over five years, I certainly hope that we would rebound,” Eatman said.

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