Charlotte’s mass transit must keep up, or growth will choke our city

The Observer editorial board

A CATS transit bus and LYNX light-rail train travel along South Blvd. Transit ridership is down, possibly due to broken bus fare boxes and low gas prices.
A CATS transit bus and LYNX light-rail train travel along South Blvd. Transit ridership is down, possibly due to broken bus fare boxes and low gas prices. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

If you don’t regularly ride one of the Charlotte Area Transit System’s 70-plus bus routes, its much-debated uptown streetcar or its oft-praised light rail line, you probably didn’t pay much attention to recent news reports about the system’s challenges.

You should.

That’s because those stories spelled out how CATS faces a $2.8 million budget shortfall. How it plans to help plug that hole by killing its 15 percent discount on 10-day bus passes. How system ridership is down 4.3 percent compared with the same period a year earlier – if you can trust ridership numbers gleaned from broken, 15-year-old fare boxes.

You should be paying attention because your sales taxes comprise nearly half of the transit system’s $120 million annual operating budget. And since Census data in late 2014 pegged Charlotte as the nation’s second-fastest growing big city, we risk choking on that growth if we fail to field a robust, high-functioning transit system.

CATS is facing stiff crosswinds at the moment. Low gas prices aren’t helping. And as highly-regarded as the Blue Line is, ridership in the hot South End district isn’t growing at nearly the same rate as the population there. Some residents instead prefer ride-sharing services like Uber, the Observer’s Steve Harrison recently reported.

On top of that, there’s the accelerating gentrification of center city neighborhoods. That’s pushing CATS’ core ridership – low-income blue collar workers – further out toward the suburbs, where bus routes cost more to operate.

CATS head John Lewis told the editorial board Friday that he sees room to partner with ride-sharing services. And while the Blue Line and the Gold Line streetcar are “game changers,” he said, far more people ride CATS buses.

In coming months, he wants to sketch out a redesign of the city’s entire bus network.

That is welcome news. AllTransit, a transportation research group, recently ranked Charlotte’s transit system 26th out of 32 big cities. Another group, TransitCenter, says two thirds of Charlotte residents live within a half mile of a transit stop, but just 8 percent live near buses and trains that run frequently.

Yes, CATS needs to be more nimble and efficient. Using busted 15-year-old fare boxes? That’s no way to run a business.

But it’s also clear that we need to invest more in our transit infrastructure. CATS remains billions short on funding for its long-range transit plan. A panel of political and business leaders in 2013 recommended a sales tax increase, among other options. Little has happened.

Our transit system, like our roads, is struggling to keep pace with growth.

It’s going to take smarter management of existing resources, and a stronger political push for new ones, to catch up to Charlotte’s explosive growth.