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CATS plans to reduce service in response to continuing labor shortages

A CATS bus.
Charlotte Area Transit System
A CATS bus.

As labor challenges continue, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) is reducing service frequency on over a dozen local and express routes beginning Aug. 15.

CATS Planning Director Jason Lawrence presented details to the Metropolitan Transit Commission at its meeting Wednesday night and said the plan is to focus on routes with higher ridership.

“What we discovered is that to really make service each and every day, we needed to save somewhere around 45 to 50 operators each day to make sure that we can meet the schedules that we are putting out there,” Lawrence said. “And the point of this was to stabilize the system and to improve reliability.”

The system currently has 74 bus operator openings and 96 drivers were absent Thursday and 87 were out Wednesday.

CATS CEO John Lewis said staffing issues are making several routes inconsistent, causing some riders to seek other options.

“I will say, in my 25-plus years of public service I’ve never had a challenge hiring bus operators,” he said. “If one operator left an organization for whatever reason we normally had 10 or 12 or 20 other operators on a list who were ready to take their place. So, this is certainly a different phenomenon than I’ve ever seen in my career.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, transit systems across the country continue to face challenges related to labor shortages. According to the American Public Transportation Association, 92% of public transit agencies state they are having difficulty hiring new employees, especially bus operators.

CATS said the service reductions, set to begin Aug. 15, will maximize the system’s reliability and minimize missed trips.

Transit Management of Charlotte (TMOC), the organization that manages CATS’ bus operations and maintenance, is working to employ more bus operators via job fairs, recruitment tactics and hiring campaigns.

“There’s no modifications for over 80 percent of our routes, so we’re talking about looking at some different schedules for 20 percent of our routes,” Lawrence said. “It would save us those 45 to 50 operator positions each and every day, but ultimately what it does is it provides the public with [a] reliable schedule ... so, we’re not in this issue of canceled and missed trips each day due to operator availability.”

Lewis said CATS has updated its mobile app to provide more up-to-date information more quickly to customers.

“We would actually provide information through our real-time app to our customers that a particular bus on particular route will not be operating,” he said. “That went live this Monday and I believe we’ve gotten very positive feedback from our customers on that.”

Lewis said CATS is working on a plan to have ride-sharing companies supplement routes to ease the service reductions but he wants to have customers use the app.

“I don’t want to pay for regular Uber, Lyft or other riders, and so we want to funnel this activity through our app," he said. "And at the next board meeting in August I will have more detailed information on the timeline of that rolling out.”

CATS is planning a series of public meetings about the adjustments. More details about the changes are at ridetransit.org

Woody is a Charlotte native who came to WFAE from the world of NASCAR where he was host of NASCAR Today for MRN Radio as well as a pit reporter, turn announcer and host of the NASCAR Live pre race show for Cup Series races. Before that, he was a news anchor at WBT radio in Charlotte, a traffic reporter, editor of The Charlotte Observer’s University City Magazine, News/Sports Director at WEGO-AM in Concord and a Swiss Army knife in local cable television. His first job after graduating from Appalachian State University was news reporter at The Daily Independent in Kannapolis. Along the way he’s covered everything from murder trials and a national political convention to high school sports and minor league baseball.