If you are driving from Pittsboro to Chapel Hill during the week, you are likely to hit a standstill around 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., when commuters clog that 15-mile stretch of U.S.15-501.
After 12 years of inching its bus service southward, on Aug. 17 Chapel Hill Transit will launch its commuter route between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill, potentially alleviating congestion on one of the Triangle's busiest thoroughfares. The service reflects the increasing demand for mass transit, particularly in rural Chatham County, where transportation options are limited even as many residents commute to the University of North Carolina.
More than half of Chatham's workforce travels outside the county for employment, according to a Chatham County Economic Development Corporation report, with the largest percentage of those commuters (30.8 percent, or 4,206 people) traveling to Orange County to work.
For 20 years, Dee Reid, director of communications at the University of North Carolina College of Arts and Sciences, has commuted daily from Chatham County. She has shaved a third of her 36-mile commute by using Chapel Hill Transit's North Chatham County park-and-ride lot. "I had a premier parking spot across the street from my office," she said. "But I gave it up when the North Chatham lot opened so that I could utilize the transit system and reduce my carbon footprint as much as possible."
In an employment assessment study released by UNC in January, the university and UNC hospital employ 12,082 people, 809 of them from Chatham. Counting Sanford commuters, who also use U.S. 15-501, that number increases to 889, says Claire Kane, UNC transportation demand manager.
Kane points out university and hospital employees drive a total of 16,000 cars; because of a lack of space, more than a third of the staff can't park on campus.
"I've met commuters who come from Sanford, Moncure, Siler City and even Asheboro, on the North Chatham bus," Reid said. "Everyone is trying to reduce their driving time and the parking dilemma."
In 1995, Chapel Hill Transit opened a small park-and-ride lot in Southern Village, about two and a half miles south of downtown Chapel Hill. Twelve years later, Chapel Hill Transit extended its service by another two miles when an additional park-and ride lot was built just south of the Orange-Chatham county line.
For the new service, Chapel Hill Transit estimates that an average daily ridership of 72 people who purchased monthly passes would generate $15,000 annually in fares, which could be applied to the monthly cost of running the service. "Assuming low ridership, it is best to start on the low end since mass transit service takes time to establish and develop," said Brian Litchfield, assistant manager of Chapel Hill Transit.
However, money from monthly pass sales won't cover the service's $9,200 monthly cost. Aided by grant funding, the county will pay 80 percent of that amount, with the town footing the bill for the remaining 20 percent. Nonetheless, "It is highly unlikely that this bus will ever pay for itself," said Bill Terry, Pittsboro town manager. "Public transit is a very expensive operation."
Pittsboro Commissioner Chris Walker initially opposed the bus service due to budget concerns, and wanted certain conditions to be met before the service began. On June 9, the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners, including Walker, agreed to the service on the conditions that the service would not incur personnel cuts, a tax increase or a dip into the general fund for more than $120,000.
"This is an experiment that may prove ahead of its time, or a good first step to improve transportation to the area," Commissioner Hugh Harrington said.
Litchfield said that after a year of running the service, Chapel Hill Transit and Pittsboro officials will have more data to predict future ridership. In addition to ridership, officials will be tracking revenue that comes in from the liquor-by-the-drink tax. However, that tax revenue is not enough to sustain the service, and to continue the service, the grant must be extended. "Without the federal grant, this service would not be possible," Terry said.
The Chatham County EDC hopes the service will start a regional mass transit system that could address rural transportation issues. "We won't just sit back once this route is established," said Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, who anticipates extending the service into Siler City, Lee County, Moore County and along U.S. 64. "This is a time for us to assess further transportation needs."
There are already some transit services in the county, such as Chatham Transit Network, which runs a limited curb--to-curb service from Pittsboro to Siler City to Chapel Hill. However, residents must make a reservation and live within two and a half miles of the network's established routes.
"The county will not grow if we can not offer transportation," said Reid, who worries about Pittsboro remaining a bedroom community. "I cannot wait to walk to the bus stop, climb aboard, and do my crossword puzzle and let the driver deal with the traffic," said Reid. "This new service is a tremendous gift."