If you’ve wandered around Chapel Hill and Carrboro lately, you know that there are many different kinds of bus stops. Some have metal shelters. Some have wooden shelters. Some have a sign indicating a bus stop and no shelter.

Have you ever wondered: How does Chapel Hill Transit prioritize bus stop improvements? Why does this bus stop have a shelter and not that one?

Chapel Hill bus shelter
This is the new bus shelter design that’s being installed.

Well, wonder no more – Chapel Hill Transit just started conducting an in-depth audit of all 529 bus stops in its system that will help our local transit agency prioritize improvements. They kicked off construction last week at 17 stops – most of which are in Carrboro – and just received $2.16 million from the Federal Transit Administration for additional stop improvements system-wide.

We reached out to Chapel Hill Transit’s Planning Manager Caroline Dwyer for a conversation about the bus stop improvements across Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

How many bus stops does Chapel Hill Transit have?

Our system has 529 stops throughout Chapel Hill and Carrboro. We also serve multiple stops that are owned or maintained by GoTriangle, providing regional connections to Durham, Raleigh, and beyond.

How much does it cost to build a bus stop?

Bus stop improvements are much more expensive than most people realize. All our stops are required to be accessible, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that, in addition to a shelter and a bench (which cost approximately $15-20,000, alone), we also must construct a stable surface (a concrete shelter pad), sidewalk connections or curb ramps, and shelters that provide enough room for the safe maneuvering of mobility devices. An accessible and stable surface often requires additional site engineering like leveling, retaining walls, and stormwater drainage.

If the stop is on a roadway maintained by the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (NCDOT), there may be additional requirements. We also must consider safe crossings and intersections and make improvements if necessary. And, depending on the location of the shelter, we might have to acquire property to locate the shelter, pad, and sidewalk connections. In some locations, we must relocate utilities.

At the end of the day, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to improve just one stop. The reality of the cost of improvements means we often have to make difficult decisions about the stops we can improve and when we can improve them.

Where is the funding coming from?

We have lots of funding sources.

The Town of Chapel Hill dedicates a percentage of the Town’s property tax revenues to transit. Some folks might not know this, but Chapel Hill Transit’s core funding is generated through a long-term partnership between the Towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Several decades ago, some fantastic folks had the foresight to set up a partnership and funding mechanism that has proven to be sustainable and extremely beneficial. This was combined with a willingness on the parts of both the University and municipalities to regulate parking on campus and in Town in ways that promote and prioritize transit use. This partnership has allowed Chapel Hill Transit to grow into the state’s second largest transit system AND one of the nation’s first fare-free transit systems.

Chapel Hill Transit also receives funding from Orange County’s half-cent transit tax, approved by voters in 2012. This funding is allocated based on a percentage between Orange County Public Transportation, GoTriangle, and Chapel Hill Transit. This funding is allocated in the Orange County Transit Plan and an annual Orange County Transit Work Plan. CHT uses this funding for both capital and operational needs. In 2024, the Town has funding allocated for ADA bus stop improvements, improvements in shelter lighting in select locations, and updates to transit signage.

We also receive funding from the federal government. We receive funding based on both formula (received by all eligible transit systems across the country) and discretionary (competitive) sources. Our in-house Grants Specialist is responsible for identifying, applying for, and complying with conditions of these federal funding programs. Chapel Hill Transit has been extremely successful, including a recent award of over $2,000,000 for bus stop improvements!

What was the process to prioritize which stops to get treatment first?

We have several tools making our decisions a little less difficult. Generally, existing conditions, a metric-based prioritization process, and the amount of available funding for stop improvements help us prioritize our schedule of improvements.

We are currently conducting field audits of all 529 stops and cataloging conditions in a variety of categories including accessibility, safety, and amenities (like shelters, benches, and more). This creates a snapshot of existing conditions and provides a foundation for considering future improvements.

Once we understand existing conditions, we can apply a set of metrics to help us prioritize improvements. In 2021, CHT hired Nelson Nygaard, a nationally recognized transit planning firm, to develop a set of Bus Stop Guidelines. In addition to describing “best practices” for safe, accessible, comfortable transit stops, the guidelines recommended a system for prioritizing improvements.

The system considers a variety of factors like current boardings and alightings (the number of people getting on and off at each stop today), future demand (the number of people who might use the stop in the future, based on development and growth patterns), demographic data (ex. number of households without access to a vehicle), opportunities to transfer to other services or modes (like a greenway connection or a park and ride), and surrounding land uses (ex. a stop on UNC campus will likely attract more riders than a stop in a suburban residential neighborhood). We also integrate a variety of equity considerations based on a method used by the Town’s Planning Department to prioritize sidewalk improvements.

The final element we consider is funding. Chapel Hill Transit generates revenue through taxes and fees for service (UNC) and is frequently awarded federal funding for capital investments, we do not have enough funding for all the improvements that need to be made. For reasons of scale and efficiency, we typically bundle stop improvements into groups, rather than improving them one at a time.

We are currently working on improvements for a set of 17 stops in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The most visible of these are the improvements currently being constructed at S. Columbia Street and Frat Court, E. Franklin Street at the Varsity Theater, and W. Franklin Street at N. Columbia Street (near the FedEx/former Caribou Coffee).

We recently received approximately $2 million for stop improvements from a federal grant and we have another ~$500,000 from the Orange County Transit Plan for stop improvements in FY24. This amount of funding allows us to prioritize improvements at stops that have been on our list for quite some time.

Will these improvements also include bus arrival devices?

Some station improvements will also include real time displays. We also recently received a grant from the State of North Carolina to install electronic screens IN our transit vehicles, which will provide additional route and service information. Stay tuned for more information!

What roles do the town staff and electeds play in this process?

Town staff play a critical role in the process of stop improvements. Our Executive Director and Assistant Director set high level, strategic direction for priorities and capital investments in Chapel Hill Transit’s system. Our Planning Manager (me) who assesses routes and ridership and coordinates with the Town’s Planning and Public Works Departments to determine trends at our system’s stops. I also oversee our two interns who are in the field conducting our bus stop audit (say hi if you see them!). Once we have the results of the audit, I will also work with our staff to apply prioritization metrics and develop a recommended list of improvements.

We have a Grant Specialist who researches and applies for funding opportunities. Our project manager finalizes and bundles the list of stop improvements, based on available funding, and manages all our bidding, contracting, and construction. Our maintenance team provides information about the condition of stops and stops that need repair. Our Community Outreach Manager works with the public to gather feedback on desired improvements and fields comments about stops. And our operators and supervisors provide us with invaluable on-the-ground feedback, as they travel our routes, speak with customers, and safely serve each stop in our system.

Our Town’s elected officials also play an important role. Land use and planning decisions made by Town Council directly influence the Town’s growth and development, which directly impacts priorities for transit improvements. For example, the Town Council recently adopted the Complete Community Strategy and a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plan. Both direct and promote growth to the most transit-rich locations in our community.

This includes locations like the NC 86 corridor, NC 54 corridor, and the US 15-501 corridor. This decision helps us understand the locations in Town where we are most likely to see growth and higher transit ridership and we would likely prioritize investments in these locations.

Elected officials also serve as a conduit between their constituents and staff. If a community member has a need or an issue, they often go directly to a member of council, who then communicates that need to staff. If they hear from multiple constituents on the same issue, they might take a strong position or directly advocate for a specific need, which influences staff’s decision making and prioritization processes.

Lastly, elected officials play a critical role in transit advocacy. We are lucky, in Chapel Hill, to have a Town Council that recognizes the importance and benefits of public transit, and backs up that commitment with a dedicated source of funding. We are able to plan much more successfully knowing that we have a dedicated funding stream from both Orange County, our local governments (both Chapel Hill and Carrboro), and from our partners at UNC. Most transit systems don’t have the luxury of reliable funding sources like these!

Will there be opportunities for the public to share their stops for consideration?

We are still several months out from receiving the federal grant funding and haven’t yet discussed a specific public input process. But we always welcome the public’s input! CHT riders are welcome to provide feedback using our Transit Feedback form, via our social media platforms, or by emailing the Town’s Transit staff.

We would love to know from TBB readers if they have recommendations for stop improvements and/or ways they would like to provide recommendations for stop improvements.

What is your favorite bus stop in the Chapel Hill Transit system?

Brian Litchfield (Executive Director) – Martin Luther King, Junior Blvd. at Town Hall because it is one of the most unique stops in the system.

Matt Cecil (Transit Development Manager) – Pittsboro Street at State Employees Credit Union, because of the way it integrates with the campus historic district.

Caroline Dwyer (Transit Planning Manager) – N. Columbia St. at Rosemary St., because it has great shelter art, is always busy, and reminds me of waiting for the bus in grad school.

Do you have a favorite stop elsewhere? Why?

Brian Litchfield (Executive Director) – Paris Metro, Abbesses

Caroline Dwyer (Transit Planning Manager) – Current favorite is Tower Hill Underground station in London, because where else can you emerge and see a Roman wall, the execution site of queens, and modern skyscrapers, all at the same time?!

Nick Pittman (Assistant Director) – Hollywood Studios, Disney World specifically for the Toy Story Bus

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

John Rees lives in Chapel Hill. His day job is an enterprise architect for a big IT company. He was, until very recently, a member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission and former chair. He serves on...