Sunday, August 20, 2006

Time to get aboard TTA 'train'

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on June 24th, 2006

For the most part I love living without a car in Chapel Hill. From my apartment near Foster's Market it's a 10-minute walk to Town Hall, a 15-minute walk to campus and about a 30-minute walk on the Bolin Creek Trail to University Mall. These are all distances short enough to travel on foot under any circumstances and it's good not to even have the motorized option to tempt me. Unfortunately, though, my life is not confined to Chapel Hill. My best friend lives in Raleigh, I love going to Durham Bulls games, and as a recent UNC grad I could end up working pretty much anywhere in the Triangle. TTA is great at getting me to the airport but beyond that it could do a much better job of serving Orange County.

Before talking about the changes that still need to be made though, credit should be given to TTA and the Orange County representatives on its board, Bill Strom and Alice Gordon, for some recent improvements. In the last year they have helped create two express routes of great benefit to residents of our county, one connecting Chapel Hill to Hillsborough and another connecting Chapel Hill to Raleigh.

The latter route has quickly become the most traveled in the TTA system. This shows that regional bus riders like the express route concept. This makes sense -- in my experience it cuts an hour off taking a standard TTA bus to Raleigh, which requires making a transfer at RTP.

The problem is that express service between Chapel Hill and Raleigh is pretty limited. Only three buses run each way during the morning and afternoon rush hours. The last bus for Raleigh leaves Chapel Hill at 8 a.m., pretty much leaving people who don't need to get to work until later in the day braving I-40 in their own cars. Similarly, in the afternoon the last bus leaving Chapel Hill to take Raleigh residents back home goes at 6:40, leaving folks who need to work late or want to dine or attend a lecture in town out of luck.

I think there's a pretty simple solution to this problem. Considering the high volume of ridership on express routes between Chapel Hill and Raleigh compared to normal routes, service between the two cities ought to be expanded to all day on the hour from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. This would encourage folks who just need to go to a midday meeting in Raleigh or who work outside the standard 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule to use public transportation.

TTA could also do a better job of serving people attending major events. I frequently took the 4:30 express bus to Raleigh to meet a friend to go to Carolina Hurricanes games, but after the game there was no choice but to make him drive me all the way back to Chapel Hill because buses have stopped running for the night by then.

Thousands of folks from Durham and Orange counties attended each Hurricanes game. Some sort of shuttle service between the western Triangle and the RBC Center, if marketed effectively, could provide a valuable service to Hurricanes fans while increasing TTA's ridership. I know a lot of students without cars who would have loved to go to hockey games but just had no way of getting there.

TTA also should think about starting a shuttle service between Chapel Hill and Durham. There aren't a lot of stops between the two cities on the current routes, but on average it takes just under an hour to get from campus to downtown Durham on TTA. However, if folks can drive their own cars the same distance in half the time, they have little incentive to use public transportation. Tons of people travel between Chapel Hill and Durham for work every day, and a user-friendly bus service could become a popular option for them.

As TTA attempts to garner federal support for its regional rail plan, it could use an outpouring of citizen support for the services it provides. Regional rail is a good idea, but as it stands, most of the advocacy behind it is coming from prominent government and civic leaders rather than normal people.

If I were Senator Burr or Senator Dole, I would be more inclined to give a helping hand if I saw a groundswell of support for the TTA from everyday citizens who benefit from its current activities and were confident their lives would be further enhanced by giving it the chance to implement regional rail. Creating more user-friendly services and expanding popular ones like the express routes could greatly increase current ridership and help build a loyal group of users whose support would be useful as TTA attempts to take its services to an entirely new level.

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