Ever since it became clear that the wheels on the Robertson Express Bus would no longer be going ‘round and ‘round, the Robertson program has been looking for an alternative way to get scholars all through the town.
The bus, which connected Duke’s Chapel bus stop to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was operated by Go Triangle, which stopped servicing the route at the end of the 2019 Spring semester.
Now, the Robertson Scholar Foundation is “going local” to connect Duke and UNC. The organization signed a contract Thursday with Carolina Livery to run the route.
“We’re pretty happy about the change,” said Allen Chan, executive director of the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program. “I think the service is going to be great. Carolina Livery always does a good job.”
The new buses will be smaller than the ones GoTriangle operated the route with, Chan said. They will hold 22 people and can carry two wheelchairs, and they’re fully ADA-accessible.
“I think this is good news—it’s actually going to be a right-sized bus,” he said. “If you’ve seen the bus in the past it was fairly underutilized because it was always a huge bus in the past.”
The smaller bus also means that the carbon footprint for the route will be reduced. Chan said they think its footprint may be cut by as much as 75%.
Before the route ended last semester, the bus was free for students in the scholarship program—and students who got a GoPass from Duke—and $3.00 per ride for the general public to use. The service ran every half hour between the Chapel and Morehead Planetarium.
Now the fares will still be free for scholars, but $1.00 each way for people affiliated with Duke or UNC and $2.00 each way for people who are not affiliated. The bus will accept credit cards.
The fees, however, do not come close to covering the operating cost of the service. The Robertson Foundation has always covered 80 to 90% of the charge, Chan said.
“I think it’s always been perceived that we’re making money on it, and it’s not even close,” Chan said.
Burgetta Wheeler, public relations manager for GoTriangle, wrote in a July email to The Chronicle that the last day of service for the Robertson Express Bus was May 7.
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GoTriangle’s Route 405 runs between Durham and Carrboro and has stops in Chapel Hill—meaning it serves a similar route to the Robertson Express.
"GoTriangle cannot run the route because it doesn’t meet our performance standards for an express route, and because we already run Route 405 in the same corridor," Wheeler told The Chronicle in March.
The Robertson Scholar Foundation was made aware of the plans to end the route in January 2019, even though the decision was made last year, Wheeler explained in March.
In addition to the concerns about performance standards, she also told The Chronicle in March that the route used older buses that had mechanical issues.
The brand new buses that will operate the route now, Chan said, will have enhanced wireless access and charging stations. Like the previous buses they have bicycle racks, but the new vehicles will also have a digital screen for advertisements inside.
“In the end, it has to be dependable,” Chan said. “It has to be safe, and also serve the purpose and be the right thing.”