Across the country, cities are looking to expand bus transit as a way to alleviate traffic congestion and combat climate change. The goal is the same: more riders and fewer cars on the road. 

Last year, Kansas City became the first large city to make its bus system completely free—something the smaller Chapel Hill did back in 2002—which has spurred talk that perhaps Raleigh, with a new city council committed to improving public transportation, could follow suit. 

It’s not clear how much that would cost. 

Each day, riders make about 18,000 trips on GoRaleigh buses, paying up to $1.25 a ride. Those trips add about $3 million to the city’s coffers a year. 

Eating that cost would require roughly a half-cent property tax increase. But there would also be savings—GoRaleigh would no longer need to print tickets or maintain ticket vending machines—as well as additional expenses, such as higher maintenance and security costs associated with more ridership. 

So the real price tag is difficult to calculate, says Michael Moore, the city’s transportation director. 

What’s more important, he says, is figuring out what the city really wants to accomplish: a more equitable bus system or better ridership. 

“Sometimes making it fare-free doesn’t actually improve ridership a whole lot,” Moore says. “What people see as a barrier to transit ridership is the frequency and reliability. It’s not always the cost. If the bus isn’t going where you want to go when you want it to go, it doesn’t matter what it costs at that point.”

That wasn’t the case in Chapel Hill, which saw ridership nearly triple after implementing its no-fare system, says transit director Brian Litchfield. Fares only made up about 12 percent of the bus system’s budget in 2001, making it “pretty easy” to absorb the cost, Litchfield says. The town went from 2.6 million annual riders in 2002 to about 7 million now. 

Kansas City hasn’t yet gotten its zero-fare system up and running, but it will probably cost about $8 million a year, according to spokesman Chris Hernandez. Kansas City plans to fund it through a combination of sales taxes, property taxes, and federal grants. 

The key to Chapel Hill’s success hinged on partnerships Carborro and UNC-Chapel Hill, which fund about 64 percent of the system’s $24 million budget. 

Raleigh’s fares comprise only about 8 percent of GoRaleigh’s operating budget, the bulk of which comes from taxpayers, the Wake County Transit Plan, and grants.

Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin says eliminating fares would likely require a joint effort with GoTriangle. The Regional Transit Alliance is planning a study to explore what that might look like. 

That doesn’t mean the Raleigh City Council won’t look into abolishing fares during this year’s budgeting process, Baldwin says. But because the council already plans to ask taxpayers to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds for Dix Park and affordable housing, she’s wary of asking for too much, too soon. 

“I think this is very doable,” Baldwin says. “I’m thinking it’s going to take us a little longer, though, than 2020 to figure it out. So what I would suggest that we look at this as an opportunity for 2021.” 

Council member Nicole Stewart says the city should see bus rapid transit through before pushing a fare-free system. (BRT is included in Wake County’s transit plan, which voters approved in a referendum in 2016.) That means dedicated bus lanes, more pick-up times, and speedier service. 

“I think it is worth exploring the idea of a fare-free system, but we can’t lose sight of our current priority of bus rapid transit,” Stewart says. 

For now, the council plans to look into a fare-capping system to ensure that those who pay by the ride don’t pay more than the cost of a monthly pass.

The story has been updated to clarify the cost of bus fare. 

Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at

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One reply on “Should Raleigh Make Its Buses Free? It Won’t Be Easy.”

  1. At the latest, fare-free should be rolled out with BRT. There is significant savings in not purchasing and installing new ticketing machines for BRT. This issue should not wait until after BRT is completed for that reason alone.

    Also, taxes should be increased on car registrations to make up this difference. The tax should grow exponentially for the more cars in a household. We must encourage people to be more responsible with transportation.

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