Mar 23, 2023 - News

Raleigh debates whether to keep its buses free

A GoRaleigh bus leaves the city's main bus station in downtown Raleigh. Photo: VisitRaleigh

GoRaleigh buses have been fare-free since March 2020, when the pandemic upended the daily lives of many of the transit system's riders.

  • But the city now faces a decision about whether to reinstate fares.

Driving the news: The city has money to keep ridership free for now, but will begin to see budget shortfalls in fiscal year 2025 when federal recovery funds expire.

Why it matters: Raleigh is part of a national trend toward going fare-free, as cities look to make transit more affordable for lower-income residents and get more cars off the road.

  • Around 82% of GoRaleigh riders made $35,000 per year or less, and 64% of trips were used to get to work.
  • Before the pandemic, a single ride was $1.25 and a day pass was $2.50.

Yes, but: The Raleigh Transit Authority and bus drivers have advised the city to reinstate fares over concerns for the budget and, in some cases, for the safety of bus drivers.

  • David Eatman, the city's transit administrator, said there's been an increase in people riding the bus for long periods of time and with no destination.
  • The city has struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels of service because of a lack of bus drivers.

Of note: Due to inflation, increased labor costs and a new transit manager contract, the city is projecting a looming shortfall of $8-$12 million, Eatman said.

  • Reinstating fares would only cover $3.5 million of that shortfall. "So we have a bigger issue," Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin noted at a council work session this month.

What they're saying: "82% of our riders make less than $35,000 a year. I don't know how we can justify bringing back fares," council member Jonathan Melton said at the meeting.

Zoom out: Chapel Hill has been fare-free since 2002 and its transit system is one of the most used in the state. However UNC-Chapel Hill contributes significantly to its budget.

  • Durham, Cary and GoTriangle are also fare-free at the moment, but will have to make similar decisions as Raleigh in the coming months.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that GoTriangle is also fare-free at the moment.


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