The new express bus between Johnston County and Raleigh often makes the trip with no riders.
And though ridership is growing on the new JCX commuter route, transportation officials don’t know if the bus route will continue after the state finishes rebuilding the Raleigh beltline.
Triangle Transit created the JCX express route to ease the strain on commuters during the beltline project, dubbed Fortify, which will close multiple lanes each way until the project wraps up in 2016.
The bus started in the middle of last December. In January 2014, the first full month of service, total ridership was 674. By May, ridership had increased 30 percent to 877 people, said Brad Schulz, spokesman for Triangle Transit. But the full daily capacity of the route is 560 people, or about 17,000 riders a month.
The first phase of Fortify is underway on three miles of Interstate 440 between the I-40 split and the U.S. 64-264. The second, longer phase will stretch from the I-40 split to the U.S. 64 interchange in Cary.
That’s when Schulz expects ridership on the express route to really pick up. “We’ve seen a steady increase in riders, but believe once the project shifts to I-40 later this year, more motorists will begin to feel the pinch of construction and fewer lanes they can use,” he said.
“We expect ridership to continue to grow on the JCX,” Schulz added, “and we’ll be adding other Fortify-related routes to provide more options for commuters.”
The Johnston-Raleigh express route runs Monday through Friday, from 6 to 9:20 a.m. and 3:40 to 7 p.m. It has one stop in Johnston County, the Walmart parking lot in the Cleveland community, and two stops in Raleigh, at Moore Square Station and at the corner of Edenton and Wilmington streets. In December, Triangle Transit will add a temporary express bus from Clayton to downtown Raleigh.
Even with the growing ridership, some buses still travel between Raleigh and Johnston County with no one but the driver on board. Most people ride between 7 and 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., but many of those buses have just a handful of people.
Johnston County commissioners have said they are interested in expanding public transportation beyond the handful of vans that crisscross the county now but only if the investment makes sense. When JCX first started, commissioners said the route could be a test case for future public transportation.
“If it’s beneficial, then certainly we would want to take advantage of that,” said Jeff Carver, chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners. But “I don’t know that there’s enough data to make a decision.”
“I’m a firm believer in a certain amount of public transportation,” Carver added, “but I just need to see the data and the numbers on what the ridership is, what the cost and the benefit analysis would be on something like this.”
The N.C. Department of Transportation is paying for JCX, Schulz said, and the money is coming out of the Fortify budget. “At the end of the three-year construction period, the service could end if there is no source of funding to continue it,” Schulz said.
The route cost about $864,284 to start up and run this year. Operating the route all three years of Fortify will cost about $2 million.
For now, the cost to ride is $2.50, but on June 25, the Triangle Transit Board of Trustees was scheduled to vote on a fare increase, the first in 10 years, Schulz said.
“If approved, the cost of an express pass will rise from $2.50 to $3,” he said. “Other fares will also rise, but discount rates will continue to apply to provide a break for those wanting to buy more than a single-trip express pass.”
Roosevelt Riles is one of the bus drivers for the JCX route. He said about 10 people ride the bus on the first trip of the day to Raleigh, but the next trips are often empty.
“I’ve had a couple people, several people really, ask me when I first started this route, did I know if they were going to keep it,” Riles said. “And they said that they sure hope it stays around. They enjoy the ride in the morning – saves them from driving into Raleigh.”
Riles said the traffic is bad enough to draw people to the bus, where they can read their paper, drink their coffee and relax.
“Especially in the morning, it’s real bad out here,” he said. “When they get to work they’re not all keyed up from the drive.”