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Public Bus Systems In NC To Feel The Squeeze As Motor Fuel Tax Revenue Drops

Public transit systems, including GoTriangle, will see a funding cut from the state.
Courtesy of GoTriangle
Public transit systems, including GoTriangle, will see a funding cut from the state.

Public transportation systems around the state will see funding cuts largely due to lower motor fuels tax revenue.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation sent notice to 24 public transit systems, letting them know how much they would each lose.

In total, NCDOT reduced funding in eight areas by $44 million. Half of those areas will suffer an $8.5 million reduction each, including a recurring reduction in the State Maintenance Assistance Program, or SMAP.

That cut amounts to more than a quarter of the state funding in that program, which helps local public transit systems with maintenance of their fleets.

Administrators for public transit systems around the state said their service times will likely be impacted. Raleigh, for example, will see a cut of $700,000. David Eatman, the Raleigh transit administrator, said it costs about $350,000 to operate a bus for one year, so the cut is like taking two busses out of commission completely. That can mean a line that normally departs central station every 15 minutes, might leave only every 30 minutes. That kind of impact has a compounding effect, he said. Because of the longer wait times, it can reduce ridership.

"By reducing headways you reduce the attractiveness of the overall route, so then you get reductions in revenue as well," he said. "Sometimes you end up degrading services, so it can be a bit of a double whammy."

Brian Litchfield, the Chapel Hill transit administrator, said the town's system will need to use money earmarked for "desperately needed" replacement busses to close the funding gap.

"This unfortunate funding cut represents a significant setback to improving mobility, access to jobs and education, health care and basic life activities across our great State," he wrote in an email. "If this funding cut is sustained and/or increased over future years, our only choice may be significant service reductions."

North Carolina has steadily increased its motor fuels tax rates, from 22 cents per gallon in 2002 to 35.1 cents per gallon in 2018. Overall collections climbed sharply during the economic recovery, but leveled off in the past few years.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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