Burlington’s city council has given Link Transit, the city’s federally-subsidized bus system, a green light to introduce Saturday service for the first time since its debut and to eliminate the fares that passengers currently pay when they board.
The council signed off on both of these changes earlier this month after Mike Nunn, the city’s transportation and planning director, recommended these enhancements to the city’s five-year-old bus system during the council’s latest monthly work session.
At Nunn’s urging, the council agreed to offer 9 hours of service on Saturday while restoring the bus system’s weekday schedule to what it had been prior to the coronavirus pandemic, when its end time was rolled back from 8:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. The council nevertheless declined to extend the weekday timetable out even further to 9:30 p.m., which Nunn had proposed as an alternative to Saturday service.
The city’s transportation and planning director had assured the council that Link Transit can readily afford both the introduction of Saturday service and the extension of its weekday hours to 9:30 p.m. without the need for any additional funds from the city.
“Right now, this is in the budget – to do one or the other,” Nunn went on to inform the council during the work session on May 3. “Staff would recommend that you go with Saturday first…to bring in one change at a time for a system our size is recommended.”
Nunn told the council that Link Transit was already poised to offer one of these options before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily put the brakes on the expansion of any municipal service.
Since then, the bus system has received an infusion of federal dollars under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, which Congress approved in the spring of last year. Nunn told the council that the proceeds of this relief allocation would temporarily cover the full cost of any expansion that the council may authorize for the bus system. He cautioned, however, these federal dollars will run out in June of 2022 – at which point, the city will be on the hook for half of the bus system’s operating expenses.
Nunn added that, over the long haul, the city would be responsible for 50 percent of the $129,355 a year needed to provide 9 hours of Saturday bus service. Alternatively, the city would have to foot the same share of the $107,796 per annum that he said is necessary to add an extra hour and a half of service on weekdays.
The council also reached another consensus during the work session to waive the $1 charge that the bus system’s riders have traditionally fed into the fare box. Nunn had recommended this move to the council in the hope that the city’s residents will be more likely to patronize Link Transit if they don’t have to pay anything when they board one of its buses.
Nunn told the council that the collection of these fares was already little more than an administrative headache before the revenue they generated began to peter out about two years ago. He went on to recall that the monthly haul from the fare box plummeted from $2,656 to $1,547 between 2018 and 2019, before climbing back up to $2,185 a month during the first quarter of 2021.
“Most likely, we would’ve come to you before now,” he added. “We’ve shown on our fare free days for our anniversary [in the month of June] that ridership doubles…The recommendation would be that if we do any changes to service expansion, or even without service expansion, that we go to a fare-free system.”
The council, for its part, generally concurred with Nunn’s proposal for Saturday service. Its members were a bit more ambivalent, however, about the prospect of fare-free transit.
The recommendation to eliminate fares drew a particularly enthusiastic response from councilman Jim Butler.
“I would be in favor of fare free,” Butler told the rest of the council. “You’re going to get enhanced ridership and [the expense on] the administrative side exceeds the benefit.”
“I definitely support it from a standpoint of increased ridership,” concurred Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis. “If we’re running the buses, paying the drivers, and can double the number of people on those buses, it seems like a more efficient system overall.”
Meanwhile, Burlington’s mayor pro tem Kathy Hykes argued that people may actually be more inclined to value a service when they have to pay something for it.
“But I’m willing to try it and see how it goes,” she added. “I certainly think transportation is important to get things running.”
Nunn subsequently told The Alamance News that he and his colleagues are running on all cylinders to implement the instructions that they received from the council during the work session.
“Our goal for fare free is June 1,” he explained in an interview last week. “We’re also going to go back to 8 p.m., which is our regular [weekday] service schedule, on June 1, and our goal for Saturday service is sometime in July. But we’re at the mercy of hiring the drivers and getting them trained.”