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No Love for Mobie

It looks like the SouthPark area's experiment with mass transit just didn't catch on. Only four citizens showed up to a meeting last Thursday on the future of the Mobies, scaled down versions of Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) that traveled a five-mile loop around SouthPark Mall. The idea was to offer people an alternative to driving through the already congested mall area. As we reported in the April 3 issue, the Mobies' big flop led to a decision to hear from the public before dumping the service.

Only one of the four folks who showed up for the meeting had actually ever ridden one of the Mobie buses. Two were visitors from Europe whose purpose for showing up appeared to be to educate American transit officials about how much better European transit systems run. A third man lectured transit officials about how elderly people who fought in America's wars -- he went into detail about the wars -- weren't appreciated in today's society. It wasn't clear what he wanted transit officials to do about this, but he seemed to be in favor of providing elderly veterans reliable mass transit. A fourth had recently lost his car and was using the Mobie to commute to his job at a nearby grocery store, and wanted the service to continue.

Transit officials listened politely, but it was clear that they'd come prepared for a eulogy, not a resurrection. Ridership on the four-bus system had dwindled to one person per hour according to figures submitted by the private contractor hired to operate the system, and it was clear that CATS officials meant to shut the system down.

"It's always a struggle starting new routes," Jon Downing, a transit planner with CATS, explained to the audience. "One of the reasons is the status of the redevelopment of SouthPark mall. It's not happening as quickly as they thought it would be. There's a sea of parking at the mall."

In January, after complaints from SouthPark residents that no one had ever been seen riding the Mobies, Creative Loafing conducted a 15-hour study ("Have You Seen Them: The mystery of the missing Mobie people," February 13) to see if CATS' ridership claims were true. Sure enough, not one rider was spotted.

Despite that, ridership numbers reported by the private contractor running the Mobie system initially showed an average of 2,000 people a month were using the Mobies. But CATS chief Ron Tober didn't buy it. He says he hasn't seen too many folks riding the Mobie either.

"It's hard to believe those numbers given what we have both observed," Tober told CL three weeks ago.

The truth may never be known since there was no automated system to track ridership. Instead, the Mobie drivers were supposed to mark a sheet with a pencil each time a rider got on the bus. Whether accurate or not, according to official figures, 2211 people rode the buses in November, 2758 in December, 2151 in January and 1843 in February.

The four buses, which cost a total of $1 million, began running a five-mile loop around SouthPark Mall in October. They were purchased with revenue from the half-cent transit sales tax folks pay every time they purchase an item in Mecklenburg County, as did half the $500,000 per year cost of running the buses. SouthPark area businesses paid the other half. There was no charge to ride.

Tober says it will take until May to shut the Mobies down because of federal regulations on transit money that require extended public notice periods for major service changes. Tober says CATS has no plans to replace the circulator service, but that a transit hub planned for the SouthPark area should be running by 2006. *

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