The Bull City Connector may soon connect Duke and Durham no more.
A year after Duke announced it would pull its funding from the fare-free bus that connects East Campus to downtown Durham, the city is considering following suit and nixing the bus route completely after GoDurham—the local transit agency—projected a $875,000 loss in its five-year plan.
“In my mind, it was only fare free because of Duke,” Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson told the Durham Herald-Sun.
The Durham Herald-Sun reported the plans Wednesday, adding that City Manager Thomas Bonfield said the projected shortfall in the bus budget comes from a reduction in funding from the State Maintenance Assistance Program. The route may be replaced by 15-minute service along Main Street.
Duke helped launch the Bull City Connector in 2010, with the University's total investment in the project topping more than $2.5 million, Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for government affairs and public relations, wrote in an email Thursday. The route costs a total of $1.2 million per year to operate.
But the ridership levels for the fare free service never reached the expected levels, Schoenfeld explained. That, combined with changing transit priorities for the city, led Duke to announce it would withdraw its funding last November.
Duke slashed its $350,000 annual contribution in half for the 2017 fiscal year and cut it completely for fiscal year 2018, instead moving that money toward a University shuttle downtown to connect Duke's downtown offices. The shuttle service began during the summer.
"That has been a successful service so far, and ridership quickly exceeded that of the BCC," Schoenfeld wrote.
When the funding cuts were originally announced, the effects it would have on the route were not immediately clear.
“At this point, we don’t have any big concerns [about the BCC route],” said Terry Bellamy, director of the city’s transportation department, last November. “We’ve gone through the study process and updated the five-year transit plan, and at this point we want to hear from the users and hear what they think about the service.”
The question of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project looms over the discussion of local transit, as Duke holds out on supporting the project. The $2.5 billion project has major funding application deadlines looming.
Schoenfeld wrote that Duke provides more than $500,000 per year in subsidized bus passes for students and employees, maintains bike lanes, facilitates car pools and collaborates with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to operate the Robertson Scholars bus.
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"Duke has been an active leader in transit initiatives throughout the community," Schoenfeld wrote.