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Letting the CATS out the bag

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For the last few issues — as part of our 2nd annual focus on transportation — Creative Loafing has been examining the people, places and issues that come into play when you think and talk about traveling around the city. So far, we've highlighted two- and four-wheeled-related topics; this week, we're wrapping up our three-part series with a look at vehicles with more wheels ... in other words, buses and trains and such.

Remember when using public transportation in Charlotte only meant catching the bus?

Things have changed a lot since then. And as the city transforms and grows, so does the need for more ways to get around. Now, along with catching the bus, riders can hop on the Lynx Blue Line light rail; in the future, folks will be able to ride a streetcar — running from Elizabeth Avenue to the Time Warner Cable Arena — and high-speed rail will be part of the Charlotte Area Transit System. But making sure that funding will be available for these and other projects is a tall order when CATS depends on sales tax revenue for much of its budget, and spending has been on the declined for the last three years.

CATS CEO Carolyn Flowers sat down with Creative Loafing last week and discussed the current state of public transportation in the Q.C. and what to expect in the future.

Creative Loafing: What has changed with CATS since your arrival in 2009?

Carolyn Flowers: One of the biggest challenges for us has been the economic downturn and how we can manage and continue to sustain the levels of service and provide for our core responsibility, which is mass transit, in an environment where there are less resources than we previously had. The big thing for us is managing with what we have. I want to categorize it, not as doing with less, but managing what we have and optimizing it. We've taken a lot of steps to improve efficiency, to reduce our administrative costs so that we can continue to focus on on-street service and looking at ways that we can continue to expand the network into the future. Last November, we had a workshop with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and what we did was a very in-depth financial assessment of what we had as our revenue projected for the future and determined what we could do in terms of still advancing [our] 2030 plan. We looked at what we will have to do in the future to ensure that we could operate and sustain the service, provide continuing service reliability, keeping the fleet in a state of good repair and ensuring that we can leverage the investment of the taxpayers.

The Gold Rush service, which is a free bus service in Uptown, was expanded this year. How has that been working?

That was expanded in a partnership with Johnson C. Smith University and Central Piedmont Community College. They actually put some funds in it so that help offset the operating expenses, which allow us to expand the operating line for Central Piedmont all the way through to Johnson C. Smith. We connected the two universities all the way through Uptown, and we've had a resounding success with the outcome. We have seen a significant increase in our ridership on the Red Line Gold Rush corridor. Gold Rush is free, so they're basically subsidizing their students to get around in the Uptown area. It makes a good connection to them for the transit center and to the Uptown area. I think it's a win-win for everyone.

When will we see the expansion of the light rail service?

There is a lot of forward motion going through right now. After we had the workshop last year, we finally came up with a way to continue to advance the system with a very viable financial plan. Looking at the financial plan, we reduced the cost of the project by about 20 percent and that made it viable for us. ... We've revised the alignment to end at UNC Charlotte, which will be a major ridership generator for us. We were able to cut the 20 percent by eliminating the last two stations on the alignment and augmenting park-and-ride stations in the University area. Our current plans are to put this new extension into operation between November 2016 and early January 2017. We're actively working on the final environmental statement, and we are actively pursuing our financial partners in this — the state and the feds. We will be submitting our financial plan to the federal government late this summer.

Speaking of finances, we're now seeing advertisements on buses and trains.

That's part of our long-term financial sustainability. We had been relying on the fare box, which is good, and sales taxes, which have been volatile. We needed other revenue sources to sustain us in the future and to give us more stability in our financial picture. That's the first step. We're exploring some other opportunities that will augment our revenue.

How does the ad system work?

We put out the bid, an RFP — request for proposal — for companies to come in and say they will actually go out and solicit the ads, guarantee us a certain amount of revenue per year and give us a percentage of the share. We awarded that contract to Titan LLC and they are a major advertiser for other transit agencies, such as New York and Los Angeles. Charlotte is the 24th largest market in the country. This is an opportunity to leverage our assets and sustain our revenues in the future.

How much do you estimate that the ads will bring into CATS?

We're hoping about $5 million in five years.

How has ridership changed since gas prices have spiked?

In February and March, we have seen some significant increases in our ridership over the past fiscal year. In February, we saw a 6.7-percent increase in ridership and March was a 4-percent increase in ridership. When people have to assess their options for mobility and they have to look at how they're going to manage their own personal budgets, public transit becomes a good option. It is a way of managing the cost of fuel in a personal budget.

How much of a role will CATS play in the proposed high-speed rail?

High-speed rail has become a highly politicized issue. But CATS ... is a major benefactor of the high-speed rail project that has been awarded to the state of North Carolina. In terms of access and mobility, there are two major benefits for us. There are some grade separation improvements that are going to be made on the alignment between Raleigh and Charlotte that we will benefit from that will help us with our Blue Line project as well as the Red Line project in the future. There are grade separations at Sugar Creek, 36th Street and possibly down here by the proposed Charlotte Gateway Station — which is over by the Greyhound bus station — and those will help us in terms of safety, reliability and speed. Also, bringing high-speed rail into Uptown Charlotte and the eventual economic development that will be hopefully coming around the Gateway Station area will also benefit not only the city of Charlotte, but improves the connectivity and mobility in that area. Local transit has to connect with the high-speed transit, and it offers further enhancements for connectivity and integration of all modes of transit. The Charlotte Gateway [Station] will serve high-speed rail, commuter rail — if we bring the Red Line in — inner-city bus, which is Greyhound, and then the local bus will come in there and eventually the streetcar will come in there. Yes, we have supported high-speed rail. In the political environment, I would say, "yes," we are supporting it.

When will Charlotte see streetcars?

The demonstration project [the mile-and-a-half stretch of tracks that the federal government funded] was awarded to the city of Charlotte, and at this point, most of the environmental issues are finally being fleshed out. That will start the process toward construction. There have been a lot of meetings recently about the alignment and how it will integrate with the light rail line. I think you won't see the actual operation of [the streetcar] until 2015.

What will the streetcar add to public transportation? Why does Charlotte need it?

The streetcar provides more options. And when you look at your modes [of transportation], they are all tools — and you can use different tools in different environments. A streetcar allows you to operate within mixed-flow traffic, it allows you to have a rail mode that can integrate into a street environment that has a lot more potential for transit-oriented development and business booming along the alignment. Light rail, you generally see economic development around the station. With streetcar, you have the potential for development along the entire corridor because you are in mixed-flow, and there are more opportunities for people to get on and off. And also, it is cheaper to build than light rail.

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