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To reduce cancellations, CATS to cut service on its busiest bus routes

CATS is reducing service on some of its most heavily used bus routes.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
CATS is reducing service on some of its most heavily used bus routes.

The Charlotte Area Transit System will reduce service starting Aug. 15 on 11 of its most heavily used bus routes, as well as the Lynx Blue Line, to keep a consistent schedule.

CATS has struggled to hire enough bus drivers to staff all of its routes. So, it’s moving to reduce service to have fewer canceled bus departures.

“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,” CATS Senior Project Manager Jason Lawrence told the Metropolitan Transit Commission Wednesday night. “And the point of this was to stabilize the system and to improve reliability.”

Of the transit system’s 10 busiest bus routes, nine will have service reduced. Most serve low-income residents in neighborhoods near uptown.

The busiest route in the CATS system is route 9, which runs along Central Avenue to uptown. It has buses arriving every 10 minutes today; that will be reduced to having service arriving every 15 minutes.

The second-busiest route is the 16, which runs along South Tryon Street to uptown. Service will be reduced from buses arriving every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes.

In March, those two routes carried more than 86,000 passengers — about 17% of all CATS bus passengers.

Other routes impacted include; No. 5 Airport Spriter; No. 6 Kings Drive; No. 7 Beatties Ford Road; No. 8 Tuckaseegee; No. 10 West Boulevard; No. 11 North Tryon; No. 21 Statesville Avenue; No. 27 Monroe Road; No. 34 Freedom Drive.

The Lynx Blue will have service reduced from trains arriving every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes.

CATS will not eliminate any bus routes.

But a WFAE series last week highlighted that the system operates many routes with hardly any passengers. Route 290 in Davidson, for instance, carried four passengers for the entire month of April.

Route 51, which runs from Pineville to Matthews, averaged less than two passengers for each bus departure in March.

CATS has lost 75% of its bus passengers since 2014 when it carried 23.9 million passengers. In the last 12 months, CATS buses carried 5.9 million passengers.

CATS and City Council members have focused on the short-term problems of having enough drivers. But transit experts say transit faces long-term problems that include more people using ride-share services; more people owning their own cars; and more people working from home.

CATS chief executive John Lewis said he is considering a “micro-transit” program that would allow passengers to use Uber or Lyft to make up for the lost service. He said he will present details on that plan at the next MTC meeting in August.

Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones told City Council last week in a memo that he has hired a consultant, Management Partners, to review operations at CATS. The consultant started its work in June and is expected to release its report in August or September.

Jones wrote the consultant's report is meant to provide "long-term stability to CATS operations."

Some council members have become frustrated with continuing problems at CATS. The city hopes voters one day approve a penny sales tax increase to pay for a $13.5 billion transportation plan, with most of the money going to build a new light-rail line and expand the bus system.

The city first needs Republican lawmakers in Raleigh to give the city permission to place the sales tax increase on the ballot.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.