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Transit ridership slides in Charlotte. Gas prices, fare hike to blame?

A CATS transit bus and LYNX light-rail train travel along South Blvd. Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. Transit ridership in Charlotte has declined for much of this year, possibly due to lower gas prices.
A CATS transit bus and LYNX light-rail train travel along South Blvd. Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. Transit ridership in Charlotte has declined for much of this year, possibly due to lower gas prices. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Transit ridership in Charlotte has declined for much of this year, possibly because of lower gas prices.

For the calendar year, ridership on buses and the light-rail line is down just under 4 percent compared with 2014, and was down more than 8 percent in May.

Transit ridership is often dependent on two factors: employment and fuel prices.

The Charlotte economy is doing well, having mostly rebounded from the 2008 economic downturn. In fact, roughly 100,000 people are working in uptown compared with 75,000 in 2007 when the Lynx Blue Line opened. Thousands of new apartment-dwellers live along the train line and can take light rail instead of their cars.

But starting last summer, the price of crude oil tumbled, bringing gas prices down with it.

In North Carolina, the average price of a gallon of gas was about $3.30 a year ago. It’s now about $2.25, according to AAA.

 

Olaf Kinard, director of marketing and communications for the Charlotte Area Transit System, said he believes the drop in riders is also caused by a fare increase enacted last summer. CATS raised the price of a one-way train and bus ticket to $2.20, up from $2.

“Part of what you are seeing is a normal effect of a fare increase,” he said.

CATS’ policy is to consider fare increases every two years.

He added that gas prices are also a factor in persuading people to return to their cars.

Kinard said the fare increase and gas prices are short-term drivers of ridership. But he also said CATS is struggling with a long-term challenge of having enough money to add new service or increase the frequencies at which buses operate.

“After the recession, one of the things we did is we tried to maintain our routes,” he said. “But we did reduce frequencies, and that is less accommodating to people’s schedules.”

CATS is mostly funded with revenue from the half-cent sales tax. That tax revenue declined sharply after the recession and has since rebounded.

But the transit system has allocated much of that money to build and then operate the new light-rail line under construction to UNC Charlotte. That $1.1 billion project is scheduled to open in the summer of 2017.

Michelle Broome has been using CATS since October, when her car broke down. She lives near the Arboretum and works near the airport – a commute that’s difficult on public transportation.

“I take three buses and the train each way each day,” she said about a one-way trip, which can take 90 minutes.

She wishes that buses ran more frequently, which would shave time from her trip. But at this point, low gas prices aren’t a factor for her.

“I am completely dependent on buses,” she said.

Here is how various parts of the city’s transit system are faring:

▪ At the end of 2014, ridership on the Lynx Blue Line set records. It was higher than it was in the second half of 2008, when gas prices were at record highs.

But since then, train ridership has tumbled.

In May, Lynx ridership fell nearly 10 percent. For the first seven months of the year, ridership was down 4.5 percent compared with the same period in 2014.

One bright spot has been the new streetcar, or Gold Line, which opened in mid-July. CATS said it would carry 900 to 1,100 passengers daily, but ridership for the month averaged more than 1,500 trips on weekdays.

▪ Bus ridership has fallen this year. The biggest decline has been on the four regional express routes that go from uptown to the neighboring areas of Concord, Gastonia, Rock Hill and Union County.

Ridership on those routes has dropped by more than 10 percent this year. Those routes are filled with uptown workers, many of whom have the option of driving.

Other express routes that operate inside Mecklenburg have seen large drops. Passengers on the Rea Road Express, for instance, declined 25 percent in May, 20 percent in June and 24 percent in July.

Kinard said CATS doesn’t see any trends that are cause for concern.

“We don’t see anything that indicates a systemic shift in the employment base,” he said. “We aren’t seeing a decrease or a shift in the activities (taking place) for the uptown service. Weekend service continues to be strong.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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