Charlottesville Area Transit manager John Jones likes to relate a piece of advice about public service passed down to him by an Ohio city manager early in his career.
“He said, ‘Son, I’ll tell you one thing about this: It’s a dangerous business. The danger is you put something out there, and then someday you’ve gotta take it away. Because the day you take it away, there’ll be hell to pay.’ And we’re paying hell.”
CAT rolled out an overhaul of the city’s bus routes at the beginning of January, the system’s biggest update since 2008. The process started long before Jones arrived last February, spanned six years, and included a $116,000 study by San Francisco-based transit consulting firm Nelson Nygaard. Despite all the front end work, it hasn’t been greeted with general approbation—hence the hell.
Jones, pragmatic and blunt, is a Steubenville, Ohio native who likes to point out that he started out under a bus with a wrench in his hand. He worked as a bus parts distributor straight of high school, then took a job repairing vehicles. After an injury, he went back to school for a business management degree at 32, and ultimately returned to transportation—this time working behind a desk. Before he came to Charlottesville, he was a transit director in Breckenridge, Colorado, having worked his way up from positions with the Cleveland school district and the Medina, Ohio transit department.
He has inherited his share of problems. Some of them were part and parcel of running a transit system on a tight budget in an old city. Some, according to Jones, were the result of expanding service to corners of the city the buses never should have gone in the first place. Always, though, there is the ever-present challenge of fulfilling big city expectations in a market that has a scale issue.
“Over the years, we’ve overpromised, and unfortunately, because of that, we’ve gotten into a situation where we’ve underdelivered in some cases,” he said.
CAT’s Route 4 was a prime example. It serves the southeast part of the city—Downtown, Fifeville, UVA Hospital, Cherry Avenue, Fry’s Spring—and used to make so many stops on so many circuitous loops that it was never on time and barely understandable on a map. A few weeks after Jones moved to the city, he tried walking the route from its far end on Harris Road on the outskirts of town to its terminus at the Downtown transit station. He beat the driver.
“If you can walk faster than you can travel there by bus, you’ve got a route that’s a problem,” he said.
The new Route 4 reflects a lot of the principles that went into the rest of the updated transit map, drawn first by Nelson Nygaard and tweaked by Jones and his staff: A straighter arc hits two big destinations—the hospital and the Willoughby Shopping Center off Fifth Street Extended—and requires people who live in the neighborhoods in between to make a longer hike to catch the bus.
But sacrificing some individual convenience in the name of greater system efficiency is a hard sell, and many riders who are walking further or have seen service cut completely are angry.
Lena Seville, president of the Transit Riders of Charlottesville, ticked off the most frustrating changes: no more night service to the Pantops shopping center; no more Saturday service between neighborhoods off East Market Street and PVCC; loss of a spur of Route 4 that served Johnson village, leading to a half-mile trek for residents; fewer stops everywhere. As her group sees it, CAT is stuck in a catch-22 of low ridership and too-little funding, and is damning itself further by killing convenience.
“I just don’t think they’re getting it,” Seville said. “As long as they don’t see the customers as paying the bills, they don’t see why they need to make things easier. They have to think about that if they’re going to expand ridership.”
The rollout could have been handled better, she said. Many changes, including stop locations, weren’t announced until December. And some of the problems she’s railed about don’t require expensive updates, she said. Some stops lack stickers with the proper five-digit code riders can use to call CAT and track their bus. The old transit map didn’t have individual stops marked, which was particularly frustrating for riders who don’t have smartphones or Web access—a sizeable portion of the bus system’s regular users.
“Do you know how many times I had to complain to get that?” she said. “These inexpensive, simple, easy little fixes—I shouldn’t have to go to the manager of the entire system for something like that.”
Jones said CAT is listening. 2014 will come with a new focus on customer service, he said, and a new fare card system will make paying for rides easier.
But he’s quick to point out that what people really want when they say they want a better transit system is more buses on more routes. And that means a lot more money.
“To blow out service the way some would like to see us do it would require us to double the size of our fleet,” he said, to the tune of an extra million in operating costs and an $8 to $12 million investment in buses.
Could Charlottesville and Albemarle just throw more money at public transportation? Sure, he said. But it’s more complicated than that.
CAT is heavily dependent on outside funding—just shy of 50 percent of its $6.6 million budget comes from federal and state grants and matching funds. With the support of taxpayers, local officials could make transit a priority with a designated tax fund, said Jones. But an increase in local support alone wouldn’t cut it. The city pays about 25 percent of the budget, the county 13 percent, and UVA 3 percent. Fares account for only 8 percent.
What those dollars could do is leverage more federal money, but it’s getting harder to win competitive matching grants, said Jones. In the last year and a half, the government has started requiring strict performance specifications, he said, which means transit authorities have to prove their systems are efficient.
So throwing money at Route 1 Saturday service to keep it going at a cost of $35 per passenger? Not a good decision in the long run.
“Now, as never before, when you get those underperforming routes, you don’t explain them away,” he said. “It drags the system down. You start missing target indicators and all of a sudden, you’re missing 5 percent of your grant funding.”
And scaling up is no simple matter. The process of buying a new city bus, from placing the order to receiving the delivery, takes at least 18 months.
The new system is still being tweaked. Jones is pushing the county to pony up for extended night service to Pantops, and said his team is looking at a few other changes that would restore service to some areas that lost it in the redesign.
“I think the general perception of the public seems to be that we’ve gone in and made these changes and that’s the be all and end all, and it’s not,” he said. Feedback in the first month will be critical, especially once the city fills up again with University students, who along with faculty make up about 20 percent of the system’s ridership.
“There’s a fine balance in there between providing the needed service to everyone who needs it, and providing the available service to everyone who might want to use it,” he said. But he’s confident that making people walk further to ride shorter won’t discourage people from using transit, and he’s got his eye on 3 million fares—a 30 percent increase—within a couple of years.
He knows some aren’t happy, but after years of planning, it was time to pull the trigger.
“At some point in time, it becomes the song that never ends,” he said.