Chapel Hill honors transit pioneer ::

— When Howard Lee became mayor of Chapel Hill more than 50 years ago, many people thought his public transport plans were far-fetched. But his idea prevailed, and now Chapel Hill Transit has the second-highest ridership in the state.

On Monday, the former mayor was honored for that vision.

By Lee’s own admission, the idea seemed unlikely.

“At Chapel Hill, we probably couldn’t have justified the Chapel Hill system in the early years, but it turned out to be far more valuable than we could ever have imagined,” Lee said.

In 1969, Lee, the son of a Georgian sharecropper, thought he might become mayor of Chapel Hill, a predominantly white southern town.

“My goal was never to be mayor of Chapel Hill, my goal was to force whoever became mayor of Chapel Hill to submit to do the things that I would do if I were mayor of Chapel Hill,” said Lee.

This included the creation of a bus system. As a social work student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who didn’t have a car, Lee said he struggled to get around town – like many others.

“When I invented mass transit, a lot of my followers went wild,” Lee said.

“Unfortunately – well, fortunately, I guess – I got elected and everything I promised to do, I had to find a way to do,” he said.

Lee found a way to acquire the city’s first buses—he turned to Atlanta and bought 20-year-old clunkers from the city’s used fleet.

The city had to close the system because there was no more money. But Lee was the engine that could.

“You wanted to help move our community forward by helping those who needed help getting to work, shopping, whatever they needed,” said current Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.

GoDurham Bus

The partnership added power to the engine. Both Carrboro and UNC-Chapel Hill joined the transit system, allowing it to thrive for decades to come.

A ceremony on Monday celebrated the naming of the Chapel Hill Transit Center in honor of Lee and his wife, Lillian, a prominent retired teacher.

“Thank you for being bold,” Hemminger said. “Thank you for moving us forward as a community.”

At 87, the former mayor widens his windshield to see the whole region.

“I think at some point we’re going to have to have rail transit as well as road transit, and I hope those things come together,” Lee said. Public transit service has been free for 20 years.

Melvin Z. Madore