Carolina Journal News Reports

Fat CATS

To avoid dipping into capital reserves, Charlotte’s transit system scales back service and waits for a stimulus check

Feb. 23rd, 2009
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CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte Area Transit system will scale back some routes in an attempt to counter three major decreases in funding, department officials said in January.

Though buses will take the brunt of the reduction, the new light-rail train system also will be cut during peak hours. All told, CATS hopes to reduce its operating costs by $8 million in the next two fiscal years, it explained in a presentation in December and available online at www.charmeck.org.

The Lynx train, operating in only one of the five corridors that CATS still plans to build, will now run six trains per hour during the morning and evening rush. That’s a decrease of two per hour, but CATS Chief Operations Planning Officer Larry Kopf explained that the new schedule is more efficient than the old.
As the trains currently run, a mix of one- and two-car trains arrives every 7.5 minutes.

“We found that when some people see the one-car train coming, they’ll actually wait (for a two-car train),” he said.

Now, trains will run every 10 minutes, but each train will be two cars. These changes amount to a saving of as much as $100,000, Kopf said. “The capacity along the line is not going to change. We’re going to have the same number of cars providing service,” he said.

The buses are going to take the brunt of the cuts, and that’s the way it should be, according to Mike Nail, operating budget manager. Nail said the buses’ operating costs, including maintenance, operators and diesel fuel, far exceed those of the train. Additionally, the majority of public transit users take the bus, not the train.

“(The number of) our passengers before we started rail was 18 million. Our passengers after we started rail (number) in the 19-20 million range. Both have grown even with the introduction of services,” he said.

Many of the bus routes that are being changed, scaled back, or eliminated, beginning March 2, are those with low ridership, such as the First Ward Shuttle, which has, on average, 973 riders per month. Six routes have been axed altogether.

“We do monitor our services on a regular basis. We have a system that we call route performance monitoring, and it looks at statistics (of each) route,” Kopf said. “We use that consistently to keep up with how our routes are doing.”

The Numbers

The relative ease of making these changes, however, has some questioning why the system did not run so efficiently in the first place. If running trains at the same capacity but slightly less often can result in $100,000 savings, there seems to be validity to the question of just how CATS has arrived at this juncture.

In its December presentation, CATS officials said they expected to receive an anticipated $5 million to $7 million less in local sales tax, 6 percent to 12 percent reductions in state assistance, and an anticipated 30 percent reduction in federal funds. But a 44 percent decrease in the cost of fuel and an unexpected boon in ridership, which netted an additional $3.6 million in revenue, did little to offset CATS’ operating costs, said Dee Pereira, administration manager for CATS.

Transit services are typically measured by unlinked passenger trips. For example, a round-trip journey would comprise two unlinked trips. Per ride, CATS pays $1.91 per rider for rail, and $3.37 for bus ride, Nail said.

But these numbers, particularly for the light rail, do not take into account the $463 million it cost to build the one line currently in operation. In January, CATS officials also announced they were moving forward on building a second Lynx line through northeast Charlotte. Though still far from established, the plan has already reached an estimated cost of about $900 million.

The large spread between construction and operating costs and what is called a fare-recovery ratio does not bother Pereira. “The fares from revenues typically do not offset the operating costs,” she said. “I think that’s normal for all transit agencies.”

Therein lies the problem, said David Hartgen, a retired University of North Carolina-Charlotte professor of transportation studies. Hartgen has been following the CATS plan for expansion and expenditures for years. He also prepared a report for the John Locke Foundation in 2006 examining North Carolina’s largest transit systems.

“Their vision of what they wanted (public transit) to be was totally unrealistic,” Hartgen said of CATS’ and other cities’ efforts. In North Carolina and across the country in places like St. Louis, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; and Minneapolis, Minn., light rail has been sold as a solution to congestion problems, to environmental issues and as a way to plan for future growth.

But repeatedly, these costly experiments have failed to satisfy some key questions, Hartgen says.

“We’re lying to ourselves, misleading ourselves. It’s not changing land use, it’s not reducing congestion, it’s not (preventing) air pollution,” he said. “What this is, is a huge cross subsidy to downtown workers who don’t want to pay parking in the suburbs.”

As the Lynx runs now, those who live within about two miles of either side of the line and work downtown are reaping the greatest benefit of the service. But if commuters live farther than that, Hartgen estimates, their time has to be worth less than the time it takes to ride public transit combined with the amount it costs to park downtown each day. That, in Hartgen’s opinion, amounts to a small slice of the population.

Lynx proponents argue that reaching more Charlotteans is the reason for expansion, and with plans for four more lines and an expansion of the current one, the train will certainly be reaching larger sections of the city. But if they built it, will they come?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Regardless of ridership, which dipped a little in December, CATS officials plan to use capital reserves to expand the northeast and north corridors, officials said in December. In 2007, Pereira estimated that CATS would contribute $22 million in fiscal 2008 and 2009 to the capital reserves, which will also be used in 2009 to purchase buses and build park-and-ride lots.

CATS officials also hope to benefit from President Barack Obama’s proposed stimulus bill. CATS submitted requests for $295 million, including $285 million in capital projects including “capacity enhancements” to the current line. Another $10 million would go to an “enhanced airport bus, downtown business shuttle (and) transportation demand management,” the December presentation said.

In the absence of help from on high, CATS could make some immediate improvements, Hartgen recommends. “The first they could do is delay flow into the capital fund,” he said. “For CATS to suggest that it is required to maintain the capital fund is just plain foolish.”

But Leier disagrees, saying the department must continue to protect its capital reserves. “Programs (that) have dipped into their capital reserves to help cover operating (expenses) have actually run into problems later, where they can’t keep up their buses,” she said.

Hartgen also recommends raising fares again, charging for use of park-and-ride lots, selling advertising on buses and trains, and cutting the administration budget. He also recommends increasing enforcement of ticket-buying, a move CATS officials announced in January.

So far, the announced cuts have been received with a mix of ambivalence and acceptance, Leier said. “For the most part, everyone understands why we have to do what we have to do right now,” she said.

Colleen Calvani is a contributor to Carolina Journal.