Politics & Government

CATS has an ‘aspirational’ plan for high-frequency buses. Here is a new route map.

The Charlotte Area Transit System is making several changes to its bus system Monday to coincide with the opening of the Lynx Blue Line Extension.
The Charlotte Area Transit System is making several changes to its bus system Monday to coincide with the opening of the Lynx Blue Line Extension. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

In a bid to win back riders who have left, the Charlotte Area Transit System is redesigning its bus system, by adding more cross-town routes and, if money becomes available, dramatically increasing the number of routes that arrive every 15 minutes or less.

The first changes start Monday and are designed to coincide with the opening of the Lynx Blue Line extension. CATS has remade 14 routes, with almost all tying into train stations on the light-rail line.

But the transit system’s “aspirational” plan calls for new routes throughout the city, with buses arriving so often that passengers don’t need to check a schedule. CATS chief operating planning officer Larry Kopf said the new route map is aspirational because CATS doesn’t have the money to pay for it. He said it would be a roughly 50 percent increase in the transit system’s operating budget for buses, which was about $100 million in 2016.

CATS has designed a new map for the high-frequency service, which resembles the subway map of Washington D.C.’s Metro. It’s part of CATS chief executive John Lewis’s “Envision My Ride” campaign to remake the bus network. It would be the biggest overhaul to the bus system in twenty years.

bus map
The Charlotte Area Transit System has an “aspirational” goal of creating several high-frequency bus routes that would cross the city. Charlotte Area Transit System

But the plan calls for 16 high-frequency routes along major thoroughfares like Providence Road, Monroe Road, Independence Boulevard, The Plaza and Tyvola. Many of the routes would not feed into the main bus station on Trade Street, but would cut across the city. If implemented, the route map would resemble a grid rather than today’s hub and spoke system.

There are four high-frequency bus routes today: Central Avenue (route 9); Beatties Ford (route 7): West Boulevard (route 10); and South Tryon (route 16).

CATS operates 67 bus lines, and 44 of them serve uptown.

“Not everyone works in uptown,” Kopf said. “That’s what we’re trying to address.”

In the last three years, ridership on local buses – the largest and most important part of the CATS system – has declined by more than 15 percent. In the four first months of this fiscal year the downward trend has accelerated, with ridership down 9.1 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

CATS chief executive John Lewis has speculated that the city’s gentrification has hurt ridership. As neighborhoods like Biddleville and Cherry add new, affluent residents, low-income Charlotteans are pushed farther out. Lewis said the transit system struggles to serve riders when they live far from uptown.

But others speculate that ride-share companies are also taking passengers from CATS.

CATS said that today 5 percent of the county’s population – just under 50,000 people – lives within a quarter-mile of a bus stop served by a route with buses arriving every 15 minutes or less. The plan would increase that number to about 194,000 people, or 19 percent of the county’s population.

CATS has a web page that allows people to make comments on the proposed changes.

▪ Three of the proposed high-frequency routes would run from the airport. One would go to SouthPark; another would run along Wilkinson Boulevard to uptown; another would travel to the Rosa Parks Transit Center on Beatties Ford Road.

▪ CATS would operate high-frequency service from the Arrowood light-rail station to Charlotte Premium Outlets off I-485.

▪ There would be service from uptown to the Arboretum shopping center on Providence Road and from uptown to Matthews.

▪ An example of a new crosstown route would be a proposed route from the JW Clay Boulevard light-rail station to the old Eastland Mall site at Central Avenue and North Sharon Amity Road.

The proposed bus expansion would likely fold into a proposed massive expansion of light rail. Lewis wants to build three new rail lines, which he said would cost between $5 billion and $7 billion. That would almost certainly require a new tax, possibly an increase in the half-cent sales tax for transit that’s been levied since 1998.

Monday’s changes are smaller in scale, and do not increase the number of service hours CATS offers.

▪ Bus route 59 will run from the JW Clay Boulevard light-rail station to Bryton Town Center in Huntersville, mostly along Prosperity Church Road and Interstate 485.

▪ Route 54 will run from the University City Boulevard station to Concord Mills Mall. It will also run through University Research Park.

▪ Route 3 will no longer feed into the main bus station. Instead it will run along The Plaza, then along Matheson Avenue to West Charlotte High.

▪ Route 11 today runs along much of the path of the Lynx Blue Line extension. That route will continue.

▪ Rote 13 will change significantly. It will no longer start in uptown. Instead it will begin at the Sugar Creek light-rail station and run to the northwest to the Firestone-Garden Park neighborhood.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs