August CATS passes fly out

In another sign that high gas prices are pushing people to use public transportation, the Charlotte Area Transit System's main bus station uptown recently sold out of local monthly passes for August.

CATS used to order 3,500 of the passes, but in February upped that to 5,000. Now, after this month's rush, the transit system plans to sell 7,500 starting in October.

Olaf Kinard, who heads marketing and communications for CATS, said he's never seen the system run short of passes in the 11 years he's worked there.

Transit users can still get local monthly passes for August – just not at the main bus station. There are 27 other locations throughout Mecklenburg that sell monthly passes, and the Charlotte Transportation Center uptown will sell riders four weekly passes instead of the monthly passes. Four weekly passes – at $13 each – cost the same as a monthly pass.

Passes for express bus routes are still available.

CATS said there could be some pass shortages in September before the additional 2,500 local passes come online in October.

Fares are scheduled to jump in October, with a one-way ticket – good for both the train and bus – jumping from $1.30 to $1.50. The cost of passes will also increase.

Much of the demand for the local passes is likely due to the Lynx Blue Line, which opened last November.

The light-rail line averaged more than 16,000 weekday passenger trips in May and June – far more than the first-year weekday projection of 9,100. The 1,120-space parking deck at the Interstate 485/South Boulevard station usually fills up by 8:15 a.m. CATS is creating additional spaces on land it owns near the deck.

The parking lot at the Sharon Road West station is also full, and the line's five other park-and-ride lots are seeing more cars than earlier this year.

Bus ridership is also up. Express routes that go into neighboring counties are up more than 17 percent in the past year. Local bus routes are up 1.7 percent, and express routes are up 10.7 percent.

Josh Seeburger is a recent bus convert. He's been riding for eight months – since gas went over $3.50 a gallon. “It's $10 roundtrip in gas money and then you have to pay for parking,” said Seeburger, who works at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

He said he may continue riding public transit even if gas prices drop. “I figured out I'm saving $1,400 a year by riding the bus,” he said.

Said Sharon Williams, who works at a law firm uptown: “The ridership has doubled since I started riding. It used to be that there were a lot of empty seats on the bus. But now nearly all the seats are filled every day.”

High gas prices have been a boon to CATS ridership, but it has also strained its budget. CATS enacted this fall's fare increase a year earlier than planned, and had to act because of an estimated $4 million shortfall in its fuel budget.

A list of places that sell CATS passes is at www.ridetransit.org.