CATS ridership is up, but so are the costs

The Charlotte Area Transit System is facing two decisions in coming months. One is a short-term question about whether to expand, and the second is a bigger question that could hike taxes.

The first is whether CATS should spend some of its capital budget to buy more buses and perhaps expand park-and-ride lots.

Ridership is booming – regular bus service had 13 percent more riders over the past year, and express bus ridership is up 39 percent – and CATS no longer has to beg people to ride. In fact, the opposite is true: People on express buses are standing, and monthly passes have sold out.

“Getting new riders will never be cheaper than they are today,” said CATS chief executive Keith Parker about the ease of getting new riders.

The problem with expanding is that CATS finances are being strained on two fronts.

The price of diesel has added $4million to its fuel budget and forced an unscheduled fare hike this year. And the half-cent sales tax is now projected to be flat for the next year because of the staggering economy. If the sales tax is flat, that wipes out about $4 million in expected revenue.

(CATS had projected the tax would grow, on average, by 5.75 percent over 30 years. That's a rate of growth similar to that seen in Atlanta's transit tax, but this economic slowdown could hurt revenue more than a usual recession.)

Some of those losses are being made up from an additional $2.7 million in fare revenue.

So CATS has a dilemma: Be conservative, hunker down and weather the slowdown; or spend more money now and grab riders, and perhaps grow its long-term market share.

The second issue Parker discussed at Wednesday's Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting concerns how to build the long-term transit plan, which includes at least three rail lines. How can CATS build it quickly so the runaway costs of steel and concrete don't make it unaffordable?

Parker has gingerly broached the issue before, and it's leading toward serious discussion of “going outside” the half-cent sales tax.

That could mean a higher sales tax. It could mean a bond. It could mean taking some property tax revenue generated from new businesses along the rail line, a strategy already being planned for the commuter rail line to Lake Norman and a streetcar through central Charlotte.

CATS is doing engineering work on the Lynx Blue Line extension to the University City area and the commuter train. The city of Charlotte is taking the lead on financing the streetcar.

If all three projects are going to be built in the next five years, it's likely CATS will need more money.

County commissioner Jennifer Roberts, a member of the transit commission, said her colleagues should study ways to get more revenue.

“We should discuss this,” Roberts said at Wednesday's meeting.

“With this kind of growth (in ridership), people are shifting quickly” from cars to transit.

Roberts said one option is a new quarter-cent sales tax that counties can levy. But Roberts noted that if that tax is ever levied, a number of different interests will want a share: schools, transit and roads, to name a few.

Parker said his recent effort to get the federal government to pay for 80 percent of the light-rail extension was dead, for now. The Federal Transit Administration told Parker last week it simply doesn't have enough money for such an ambitious grant.

So the best CATS can hope for is that the FTA pays for 50 percent of the rail project and the state pays for 25 percent.

Driving plummets

High gas prices this summer weaned some motorists from their driving habits.

In fact, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Americans drove 5.6 percent less – 15 billion fewer miles – in August 2008 than they did in August 2007. That's the largest single-month drop in vehicle-miles traveled since the data was collected in 1983.

Carolinas motorists drove less than the national average. Both states posted a 7 percent drop in vehicle-miles traveled.

Florida had the biggest decline, at 9.7 percent.

The U.S. DOT charts the number of vehicle-miles traveled nationwide in the past 25 years. The mileage driven climbs almost exponentially, then levels in 2005 and 2006 and goes down steeply in 2008.

Outerbelt opening still unknown

Virginia Beach-based Skanska, the contractor building a segment of Interstate 485, hoped to know last week whether it would be ready to open the highway by Oct. 31. But it said it doesn't know whether it will make that deadline.

Skanska is still sawing and sealing concrete joints and striping the road. It's also finishing some shoulder work and sign installation. It hopes to know more Tuesday.

The new segment of the outerbelt will connect N.C. 16 to N.C. 115.