Thursday, February 28, 2008

CATS eyes fare increase. What does that mean?

The Charlotte Area Transit System last night said it's considering raising fares later this year, as opposed to 2009, as planned. The looming recession will likely produce smaller increases in transit sales tax revenue than expected. Fuel prices are going up.

This isn't earth-shattering news. But after last fall's transit tax debate, CATS' finances have been under tremendous scrutiny.

Here are my thoughts on what the future holds:

1) Late last year, CATS floated the idea that it might be willing to spend more of its money to build the commuter rail line to the Lake Norman area. Its contribution is penciled in at 34 percent, but CATS hinted it could go higher to entice north Mecklenburg towns to help pay for it.

I think that option is over. There isn't enough money to pay for 40 or 45 percent of the commuter line - especially with the northeast extension being planned. That 11-mile line to the University City area is the top priority, as it should be.

2) The smaller than expected increases in sales tax revenue isn't a crisis. After 9-11, revenue from the transit sales tax shrunk for a year or two before growing significantly in the last three years. CATS is only projecting growth of 4 percent for the next two years, rather than 5.75 percent. The 5.75 percent average increase was over a 30-year period. The sales tax that funds Atlanta's MARTA, for instance, grew by an average of 6.7 percent since it was first enacted in 1973.

3) The increase in expenses is a bigger deal. CATS long-range financial plan is very aggressive when it comes to controlling costs, though history suggests that's a tall order for transit agencies. At last night's Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting, CATS ticked off a number of areas were costs are rising, in addition to fuel. The security budget is projected to be $5.4 million in 2009, up from $5 million in 2008. Maintenance costs are also rising.

CATS has big plans. I'm guessing in the next year it will create a revised schedule, pushing some projects back a year or two as it waits for the transit tax to generate more money. The 2030 plan - which wasn't finished until 2034 - might have to be renamed the 2037 plan.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How CATS is counting

The Charlotte Area Transit System has released two months of ridership data for the Lynx Blue Line. Several people have e-mailed asking how CATS tallies its passengers, so here is a brief explanation:

CATS will soon have automatic passenger counters above the doors in all Lynx cars. It expects them to be ready this spring, but until then, the transit agency is relying on a sample of passengers.

In the first two days of operation, back in November, CATS had a near 100 percent count. Since then, it has sampled about 8 or 9 percent of weekday trains, and more on weekends. The transit agency said it’s following Federal Transit Administration guidelines.

A computer randomly picks which trains to count, and a subcontractor then assigns people to keep track of who gets on and off.

When the automatic people counters are working, CATS – and anyone else - will be able to dig deep and analyze ridership trends. What’s the busiest train? Is ridership increasing or decreasing on a particular train?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lynx ridership down, but tops predictions

The Charlotte Area Transit System recently released ridership numbers for January, with the Lynx Blue Line showing a slight decrease in ridership.

Light rail averaged 11,930 weekday trips in January, down from 12,457 in December, the first full month of operation. Sunday ridership in January was 6,249, down from 7,460 the month before. The biggest change was on Saturday. There were 8,157 trips in January, down from 12,871.

What does that mean?

CATS projected the first year of light rail would average 9,100 weekday trips, so the transit agency is far ahead of that pace, with a two-month weekday average of 12,194. It also predicted there would be a drop once the novelty of the train wore off.

January didn’t have any Panthers games, where as December had two Sunday homes dates and a Saturday night game against Dallas.

But CATS will likely get a boost from special events in the next two months. The CIAA Tournament, the ACC Tournament and the NCAA East Regional will fill trains, especially on weekends.

CATS overall ridership – trains, buses, and shuttles – was up 9.4 percent in January compared to the same time a year earlier. That should be obvious considering the additional of the Lynx, but some cities have seen rail ridership cannibalize existing bus ridership.

Hot lanes, part II

I wrote in the newspaper Sunday about the first analysis of where HOT lanes could be used in Charlotte, with the winners being I-77 in north Mecklenburg and Independence Boulevard.

HOT lanes – high-occupancy toll lanes – allow single drivers to pay for the right to use carpool lanes. Cities – most of whom are much bigger than Charlotte – are turning to HOT lanes to battle congestion after realizing they aren’t getting their money’s worth from traditional carpool lanes.

One aspect of HOT lanes that I didn’t address is that experts say it’s politically difficult to create a HOT lane at the expense of a general purpose lane. So if an expressway has recently been rebuilt – think I-85 in northeast Charlotte – that probably strikes it from the list.

Early next decade, I-85 will be widened from Concord Mills to N.C. 73. With that project set to begin in two or three years, it’s unlikely to be changed to add an extra lane. And if were, would it be worth having a HOT lane through Cabarrus County only?

Another part of the story neglected in the newspaper is whether the HOT lane would have its own exit, or whether HOT lane motorists would have to merge back into regular traffic.
If the city and state build a HOT lane on I-77 in north Mecklenburg, they have kicked around the idea of adding a HOT lane exit and entrance for the Brookshire Freeway, and possibly another exit uptown. That raises the degree of difficulty on the project considerably. Instead of re-stripping the road and adding barriers, the state and city would be remaking some of the busiest interchanges in the state.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

First Washington, now Miami

I have written about the metaphorical bomb dropped on Washington D.C. Metro when the federal government indicated last month it wouldn’t fund its planned rail extension to Dulles International Airport. The Federal Transit Administration said it was downgrading the project from a “medium” score to “medium-low,” which doesn’t meet the threshold for federal funding.

The FTA has done it again, this time shocking Miami-Dade Transit, which wanted to extend its Metrorail to Broward County. The FTA downgraded the Miami project, using similar language as it did when it rejected Washington D.C. It questioned whether Miami-Dade could pay to operate its existing transit system, much less a new line. It raised similar concerns in Washington.

This is germane to Charlotte because the Charlotte Area Transit System is moving forward in extending light rail to University City. CATS is starting next month engineering work to determine how it will build the $750 million, 11-mile extension.

CATS feels good about the project. The FTA last year approved it for preliminary engineering work, and CATS said that the ridership success of the Lynx Blue Line will help its projections with the northeast corridor.

It also has stressed that it’s going to stop along the way and make sure the FTA is still on board before it finishes the entire study, which would cost $30 million.

There won’t be a perfect time CATS to move forward, and transit officials here have stressed that if they don’t start engineering work now, they’ll never know if the FTA will ultimately pay for their train line.

That said, the Washington and Miami-Dade decisions underscore the risks in building trains. It also reinforces the belief among transit executives that this is a particularly tough time to get mass transit funding. They hope the next administration will loosen the purse strings.