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Changes to CAT bus service proposed in hopes of increasing ridership
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Changes to CAT bus service proposed in hopes of increasing ridership

Charlottesville Area Transit is proposing potential changes to bus service in the next fiscal year in an attempt to increase ridership.

In a recent presentation to the area’s Regional Transit Partnership, CAT Director Garland Williams and a consultant showed partnership members ridership data and service changes it could implement.

The proposal includes a lower level, which restores pre-pandemic service hours but with several modifications, and an upper level, which would result in a 27% increase in overall service hours, and could include new weekend service and improved frequencies on some routes, as well as additional service between the University of Virginia and the U.S. 29 corridor.

“We hope these service changes that are being recommended right now will help us to stem that tide of decline and turn it around to get it back to where we’re increasing our ridership to work on that model that comes from the state to give us more funding,” Williams said.

In 2019, Williams said he was trying to increase ridership to keep the agency out of a “death spiral” due to state funding changes based on performance.

Over the summer, CAT put temporary automatic passenger counters in some of its vehicles to get a better look at the ridership during the pandemic.

“If you look at summer 2020 compared to summer 2019, CAT lost about half of its ridership,” said James Baker, with Connetics Transportation Group. “In response to that, Garland and his team have reduced CAT service by about 30%.”

The data was shown to partnership members on a dashboard, but Williams said they were not sharing that with the public at this point, as it was a very small sample. The city recently put out a request for proposals to get more permanent automatic passenger counters in all of its buses.

“As we roll out the APC project, and roll this out to all, this information will become very readily available to the full public,” he said.

Changes will need to be made due to the coming closure of the Belmont Bridge, including a modified downtown staging location, Baker said.

Systemwide, they are proposing changes to make a consistent weekday and Saturday span of service — from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. for major routes and 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. for all other routes. All routes operating on Sunday would run from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Some more substantial proposed changes to specific routes include modifications to Route 2 to operate bi-directionally on Avon Street, removing the Route 6 southbound deviation to the UVa Medical Center, and extending Route 7 to Walmart.

If the lower-level proposal were to be fully implemented, it would increase service hours by 1% from pre-pandemic service hours, and cost the county an additional $385,877, while the city would see a decrease in costs of $599,667, according to a chart presented by Williams and Baker. If the upper-level proposal were to be fully implemented, it would increase service hours by 27% and cost the county an additional $1.4 million and cost the city an additional $593,088.

Williams said the proposals are a starting point for discussions with the City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors about what they want.

“You can think about this as a café-style model,” he said. “You can get what you want, you don’t have to take this format, you can pick and choose, because it’s pretty much interchangeable. It just depends on the cost associated with whether you want the higher or the lower.”

Two transit planning efforts — a regional transit vision plan and a transit expansion study for Albemarle — are starting now with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

“These are recommendations that we’re making now,” Williams said. “This is not trying to contradict or discount the larger planning process that’s going to happen — that’s 18 months — but we are in a real need to start to turn around our declining ridership.”

County staff said Williams is invited to a work session on the fiscal year 2022 budget. Williams said he was setting up small meetings with city councilors to go through possible changes in more detail with them.

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