One of Chapel Hill’s points of pride has been its bus system, free to riders since 2002.

But CHT recently announced that it needs an additional $80 million over the next 10 years, which could force it to start charging.

Earlier this month, Nelson/Nygaard Associates, the consulting firm hired to develop CHT’s business plan, presented five ideas that could ultimately cover these hefty costsone of which is to charge passengers.

Each day, CHT provides 30,000 trips across Carrboro, Chapel Hill and the UNC campus with a fleet of about 120 buses along 25 routes. It has managed to preserve its free service through a combination of university money and government funding.

However, federal and state loans directed toward public projects are becoming harder to come by; for example, CHT’s state funds have decreased by nearly 30 percent over the past five years. These funding cuts, along with a rise in service costs because of inflation, have left the transit system understaffed and outdated. Forty-two percent of its buses are past their useful life and the typical driver works 1,510 hours annuallyfar more than the industry average.

CHT’s gravy days, when funding and spending peaked, were from 1998–2001 and 2007–2009.

“Chapel Hill Transit is a victim of its own success,” said Bethany Whitaker, a consultant on the project. “It grew rapidly, and during that period of growth it was able to buy buses with federal grants that then went away. Now the fleet is aging and it needs to think of a new strategy.”

Some Chapel Hill residents say charging a fare would undermine the service. “It’s been free so they should keep it free,” said Carol McCormick, a daily user of CHT.

UNC students would be exempt from a new charge since their annual tuition includes a $145.74 transit fee. But for UNC employees, commuters and area residents, the fares would align with those of other cities’ bus systems, Whitaker said. Cary and Raleigh charge $1.25 per ride; Durham fares are $1. Both Raleigh and Durham have free downtown circulators, the R-Line and the Bull City Connector respectively.

Fare increases have proven beneficial for other Triangle public transport systems facing similar budget problems. In Raleigh, Capital Area Transit increased the cost per ride by 25 cents, from $1 to $1.25, last October. This amount will rise again in fall 2016to $1.50. Last week, the transit service introduced several new routes using funds from the fare hike.

Though CAT ridership has declined since the October change, Raleigh transit planner David Walker attributes the drop to other factors. “We don’t think we had a ridership decrease with the fare change,” Walker said. “Because of the lower fuel costs, people have been getting back into their cars.”

If it chooses to implement a similar charge system, Chapel Hill would have to first install fare machinery on each bus, at a cost of $10,000 a pop each.

This spring Nelson/Nygaard Associates will work with CHT partners to choose the most viable solution, or set of solutions. CHT could opt to lease or get a loan to purchase buses, reduce service, increase taxes for new vehicle registration in Orange County and requiring Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC to increase public transportation funding.

Chime in on bus fares

The Public Transit Committee meets Tuesday, Jan. 27, from 11 a.m.–1 p.m. in the first floor conference room of Chapel Hill Transit, 6900 Millhouse Road.

Members include these elected officials: Chapel Hill Town Council members Jim Ward, Ed Harrison and Matt Czajkowski; Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils and Alderwoman Bethany Chaney.

This article appeared in print with the headline “It’s good to be free”