The Daily Tar Heel reported earlier this week that Chapel Hill Transit is considering the option of charging fares over the next decade, for the first time since 2002.

But Chapel Hill Transit is replying: Not so fast.

Thanks to the recession and policy changes in Washington, Chapel Hill Transit no longer gets the federal earmarks and grants that have helped keep it going, fare-free, for more than a decade.

Add that to changes in state funding priorities, and keeping things balanced on the capital side becomes a challenge.

Transit Director Brain Litchfield of Chapel Hill Transit wants to make this clear, however: Chapel Hill Transit and the partners of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC remain committed to providing fare-free transportation.

“We’ve had incredible success with the fare-free system over the last decade,” he said. “And our sense is that it will be successful into the future, but we need to assure that not only is it sustainable but that it continues to make sense.”

Charging fares, raising taxes and raising transit fees for UNC students were some possible options for long-term funding mentioned in the Daily Tar Heel story, which was picked up by WCHL Friday morning.

But Litchfield says it’s way too early to focus on any particular options. He says that Chapel Hill Transit sees no issue going forward with a balanced budget next year. He adds that CHT is working with partners and consultants to develop a long-range plan that satisfies funding partners, as well as customers, in terms of service.

“It’s way too early in that process to say, ‘This is how we think we’re going to fund this,’ or, ‘This is how we think this service or program is going to be funded,’” he says. “What we can say is that we’re going to look at all the options that are out there and determine what’s best for our funding partners.”

The Daily Tar Heel article got people on Franklin Street talking, and here’s what some of them had to say:

Howard Hansen, a Carrboro retiree in his seventies, said he’d be fine with paying a fare, on one condition.

“They would have to increase the service,” he said, “because it’s very limited – especially weekends. There’s nothing. And I have to walk everywhere.”

UNC medical student Claudia Castillo is another frequent rider. She said she’s “not a fan” of the idea of paying a fare.

“The public transportation here is so great, because they don’t charge a fee,” she says, “which means more people are likely to use it, and commute. I think that could create problems for parking, and other issues here, in the downtown area, at least.”

Litchfield says that, in the foreseeable future, people won’t need to worry about that. He urges all citizens with questions about routes and services to visit the website at; or call 919-969-4900 press 1 for a customer service representative.

An earlier version of this story summarized the Daily Tar Heel story. This version includes response from Chapel Hill Transit.