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New director wants to get CAT out of 'death spiral'

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CAT Director Garland Williams

NOLAN STOUT/The Daily Progress

Charlottesville Area Transit Director Garland Williams speaks at a meeting of the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership on Oct. 24.

The new director of Charlottesville Area Transit said he is “aggressively” trying to increase ridership to keep the agency out of a “death spiral” ahead of new changes to state funding mechanisms.

CAT Director Garland Williams, who started this summer, discussed the public transit system’s shortcomings with the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership at its meeting last week.

Williams said that five years ago, CAT had 2.4 million passenger trips. That number has since dropped to 1.8 million this year and the system expects to lose another 100,000 this year.

“That is alarming,” he said. “We need to fix that.”

Ridership has dropped because the system has become unreliable and routes have been cut or are inconvenient, Williams said. The agency currently serves 12 routes in the city as well as a free trolley route, according to its website.

For example, Williams said, some routes are one-way, which makes sense in some ways for the agency but is inconvenient for riders.

Issues like that can be addressed, but require strategic use of funds, he said.

While many have advocated for expanded service into the urban ring around the city, Williams said now is not the time to focus on that. He did, however, say that routes should target growth areas in order to reach new customers.

“We are open for business,” he said. “But I’ve got to fix what we have first before we talk about doing anything bigger or grander.”

Another issue that will affect funding, Williams said, is poor passenger counts from unreliable fareboxes.

Williams is trying to fix the problem, but said it’s complicated because the boxes were purchased with federal funding. That funding requires the boxes to be used for 10 years and the city is only halfway through that timeline.

The boxes appear to have been malfunctioning since they were purchased and Williams is trying to work within federal guidelines to improve their usage.

Albemarle County Supervisor Diantha McKeel said CAT should coordinate any changes to its technology with JAUNT and the University Transit System.

Williams said CAT needs to stabilize before coordinating with other agencies.

“At this point what we need to really focus on is getting CAT out of a death spiral,” he said. “Because if we don’t turn our ridership around, we will get less money from the feds. We will get less money from the state. Then that means we have to change our frequency, which means we can’t capture or improve our ridership. That is a recipe for running us out of business.”

Specifically, Williams is concerned that the ridership drop will hurt the agency’s budget under changes to state-funding mechanisms that will go into effect on July 1, 2020.

The changes, approved by the General Assembly in 2018, will allocate funding based on performance and will be focused on total ridership over a rolling three-year period.

Fewer riders means less money from the state, Williams said.

Williams also advocated for a Regional Transit Plan, which would create a guideline for improving services in the area. CAT primarily serves the city, while UTS covers the University of Virginia and JAUNT provides paratransit services.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission expects to propose a plan to the regional partnership and later to Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.

The most important aspect of improving ridership is community engagement, Williams said. He wants to conduct a listening tour around the city to inform residents about changes to the system and enlist their help.

Williams said if city residents want the system to improve, they need to know how important it is for them to participate.

Williams didn’t have any estimates on when changes might occur.

“It took us a while to get where we are,” he said. “It’s going to take a little while to turn it around.”

Sean Tubbs of the Piedmont Environmental Council told the partnership members that people want to take public transit, they just need to be able to trust it.

“There are people who want to get out of their cars,” he said. “Everything you’re doing here needs to be about making it easier for people to do that. The stakes are too important to not roll up our sleeves and work together.”

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City Hall reporter

Nolan Stout is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7274, nstout@dailyprogress.com, or @TheNolanStout on Twitter and Facebook.

Related to this story

Charlottesville’s bus system, which also serves parts of Albemarle, is facing a “death spiral.” Those are strong words — and they come from the system’s new director, Garland Williams. All the more reason to take them seriously.

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