by Justin Vick
HUNTERSVILLE – Lake Norman leaders are concerned about potentially losing the three Village Rider bus routes serving Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville.
Not only is ridership low, but also the Charlotte Area Transit System is pursuing multi-million dollar light-rail and commuter-train projects.
“The sacrifice for the bus system is that there will be no growth,” Larry Kopf, chief operations planning officer for CATS, told the Lake Norman Transportation Commission on Wednesday, Dec. 8. “So in order to create new services, we’re going to have to take services from other areas.”
And that makes Lake Norman’s routes vulnerable.
“I wouldn’t say they are in jeopardy,” Kopf said. “I think we would like for them to do better.”
Adjustments have previously been made to Village Rider routes due to low ridership. CATS ran four routes from 2001 to 2009, until the Davidson route was restructured into the Cornelius one.
“There are standards for each route,” Davidson Town Manager Leamon Brice said. “If you don’t meet those standards, you fall off the list and they take that service away. Now what’s going to happen with this proposed freeze in the funding for the bus system is that bottom tier may move up some. So we’re really going to have to work hard to promote Village Rider.”
Lake Norman’s routes are low performers on CATS’ scale for effectiveness and efficiency, Kopf said, noting that factors include the number of passengers per hour and the cost per passenger.
The 97 Cornelius and 99 Huntersville routes have averaged around six riders per hour the last few years. The 98 McCoy Road route averaged nearly 10 riders per hour in 2009 and eight in 2010.
While circulator routes tend not to do as well as local routes, Kopf points to gas prices as reasons for local declines and speculates that ongoing construction may have affected routes serving Huntersville.
“We understood that this was going to be somewhat of a loss leader when we initially implemented it, but part of the intent was we hoped to facilitate transit-friendly developments in our communities,” said Bill Coxe, senior planner for Huntersville. “Those transit friendly developments have not occurred as fast as we would have hoped. That’s why the ridership has not built here.”
Plus, Village Rider service isn’t conducive to the discretionary rider, Coxe said. If someone misses the bus by two minutes, they have to wait an hour to catch the next one.
“You have to plan by the schedule and that’s difficult,” Coxe said.
Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte said more people would use the Village Rider if routes were adjusted to run through areas like NorthCross Shopping Center in Huntersville.
Tarte also pitched the idea of partnering with New Birth Missionary Baptist Church further down Sam Furr Road for a Sunday route that could accommodate its 10,000 members.
It’s going to take someone from each town to work with CATS to figure out ideal destinations, Brice said. Meanwhile, towns also should work to promote the routes among residents.
“We had a fairly good size group of ladies who wanted to figure out how to ride the bus to SouthPark,” he said. “It’s something we ought to do in our parks and recreation departments to get people to understand where the bus is and how it works. They seem to be intimidated by it a little bit.”
Some of the marketing efforts CATS has used to promote routes have included reaching out to senior citizens, by working with Ada Jenkins or Lake Norman YMCA, and to students, by hosting information sessions at Central Piedmont Community College North Campus. They’ve also tried bilingual direct mail and materials translated in Spanish.
“Our marketing dollars are not what they used to be,” Kopf said. “We’re not as bad as the library system or (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools), but we have been feeling the pinch.”