After nearly three years of pro bono bus service, it appears that free ride is about to end for fans of Burlington’s Link Transit bus system.
During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Burlington’s city council decided to reinstate the bus system’s fares, which it had originally scrapped at the height of the coronavirus pandemic to order to make this service more readily accessible to people of limited means.
The council ultimately voted 5-to-0 to restore the bus system’s fare boxes based on a recommendation from the city’s transit manager John Andoh.
Andoh had previously informed the council that Link Transit could bring in as much as $50,000 in the coming year if it begins charging passengers a base fee of $1 per trip. Andoh also proposed a reduced, half-price fare for seniors, veterans and the disabled as well as a $2 charge for people with special needs who want to take advantage of Link’s “paratransit” service.
Andoh acknowledged that these prospective charges had drawn nary a peep from Link Transit’s passengers despite the city’s efforts to publicize this proposal in advance of Tuesday night’s meeting.
“We did notify the public about this proposed fare reinstitution by notification in the newspaper, flyers on buses, and social media,” the city’s transit director added. “But, at this time, staff has received no comments from the public.”
The council nevertheless heard from one area resident on Tuesday when it convened a public hearing shortly before its members voted in favor of Andoh’s proposal.
During the hearing, Mary Jensen, a resident of West Davis Street, urged the council to continue the bus system’s fare-free policy out of consideration for the city’s least affluent members.
“Not everybody can afford to maintain a car; not everyone can afford gas prices; and not everyone can afford car insurance,” Jensen reminded the city’s elected leaders. “And for these individuals, public transportation like buses can make a huge amount of difference in their ability to find jobs, go to work, and go grocery shopping.”
Jensen added that, in many other communities across the U.S., the use of mass transit shot up when fares were eliminated in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. She insisted that the return of bus fares to Link Transit could price out some of the passengers who’ve come to rely on this service in the Burlington area.
Jensen’s concerns about ridership were later echoed by city council member Kathy Hykes, who went on to lament the generally meager response from the public to Link Transit’s proposed restoration of fares. In reply to Hykes’ misgivings, Andoh insisted that the restoration of fares shouldn’t have an inordinate impact on the bus system’s ridership.
“We might see a slight decline,” he acknowledged. “But as the system has matured – with the addition of evening service and Saturday service – it’s become more available to residents and visitors. It’s become a part of their lives.”
Andoh went on to argue that the fares he has suggested would ensure that the bus service remains within the means of the city’s poorer residents – particularly given the discounts that passengers can accrue if they purchase multi-day passes.
The council heard no comments on Tuesday from any of the other communities that are served by Link Transit’s buses. These “partners” in the bus system’s operations currently include the towns of Gibsonville and Elon, as well as Alamance County. In each case, these jurisdictions provide some financial support to the bus system, which is largely subsidized by federal funds, in exchange for their inclusion on one or more of its routes.
In the case of Alamance County, an annual outlay from the board of commissioners has enabled Link Transit to offer service to the county’s headquarters in downtown Graham as well as the main campus of Alamance Community College, which likewise helps foot the bill for its leg of the route.
So far, the allure of Link Transit’s services has failed to impress the municipal leaders in either Mebane or Graham. Even so, members of Graham’s city council have recently complained that the bus system’s free service to the county’s headquarters has brought an influx of homeless people to their own downtown business district.
When asked whether Graham’s gripes had anything to do with the push to reinstate Link Transit’s bus fares, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler has repeatedly denied any connection. Butler has also told The Alamance News that he has yet to hear any of these complaints directly from anyone who represents the city of Graham.
In the end, Graham’s grievances never even came up for discussion before Burlington’s city council voted to restore Link Transit’s fares on Tuesday. Hykes ultimately made the motion to approve the proposed fares, which went on to pass in a 5-to-0 vote.
In the meantime, Andoh admitted that it will take him and his colleagues a period of several months to make the changes necessary to implement the council’s decision.
“We still have to establish protocols for fare collection, purchase bus passes, fare boxes, and associated equipment,” he explained. “So, we anticipate [the reinstitution of fares in] late fall or early winter.”