Since 2010, the fare-free Bull City Connector has pinged from downtown Durham to Duke University, connecting the VA medical center, Duke’s campus, shopping, dining, and government services.
Now, amid funding changes and a study of Durham’s transit needs, there’s uncertainty about the service’s future.
That uncertainty comes on two fronts. First, Duke University has announced plans to cease funding for the route beginning in fiscal year 2018. Second, GoTriangle and GoDurham are reexamining all of their routes with potential changes in mind.
GoTriangle is currently taking public comments as part of its transit study, and the Durham City Council will likely be briefed on that study before the end of the year.
GoTriangle and the city say no decisions have been made to alter or discontinue the BCC, but concerns remain over how the service will look going forward. These concerns stretch back to 2015, when several stops (including Durham Station, the BCC’s busiest stop) were eliminated in the name of efficiency, while more stops were added near Duke.
“That’s what I kept hearing about these changes: we want to be more efficient. But are we throwing away effectiveness for efficiency?” asks Nikki Brown of the nonprofit SpiritHouse, who documented hazards on the route after the 2015 changes.
SpiritHouse took those findings to the Durham Human Relations Commission, which issued three recommendations last year: restore service to Durham Station, restore service to clinics at Duke South, and “focus on serving the Durham community, not primarily Duke.”
“We’re still concerned about the changes that were made in 2015,” says HRC chairwoman Diane Standaert.
At the time, BCC riders were slightly older than the overall GoDurham ridership, 52 percent of BCC riders earned less than $15,000 per year, and 57 percent were African American. Most used the service to get to work or school, as well as appointments at the VA and Duke Hospital.
Terry Bellamy, the city’s transportation director, says the route, stops, and operating hours will be considered in the context of the larger bus system. “The question we’re asking the public as we do the study is where is the service demand?” Bellamy says. “So much has happened in the last two years that there could be changes in demand.”
In the past, the city has covered about two-thirds of the $1.1 million annual bill for the BCC, with Duke contributing the other third. However, this fiscal year the university cut its funding in half, to $175,000, and indicated that would be its final allotment.
Phail Wynn Jr., vice president of Durham and Regional Affairs at Duke, says the university began funding the BCC in conjunction with grants to get the system running.
“It was never intended to be an indefinite commitment,” Wynn says.
Now, the BCC isn’t providing Duke students and faculty with adequate service, Wynn says. “To operate these new needs would probably triple the cost of the route. We found it would actually be cheaper for Duke to go ahead and run our own shuttles from the campus to downtown and back.”
Standaert and Brown would like to see the service better serve riders who really need a fare-free bus. Brown questions why the route doesn’t go to lower-income neighborhoods in east Durham or to N.C. Central.
“Are we being equitable?” Brown says. “Are we being the people that we say we are?”
Asked whether the BCC could be discontinued, Bellamy says it’s too early to tell: “We don’t know the answer to that question yet. That’s what the study process will tell us. I really want to hear from a lot of the users.”
A survey on GoDurham’s short-range transit plans can be found at GoDurhamTransit.org.