CARTA–Out of COVID Money and Facing an Uncertain Future

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CARTA

“We are on the brink of going out of business.” That statement is now echoing throughout local media, as well as the legislative and executive offices of both the city of Chattanooga, the primary local funder and Hamilton County governments, for CARTA, or the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Chairman of the CARTA Board Johan de Nysschen made the stirring comment, but it shouldn’t be one of surprise based on data collected and publicly presented for several years by the transportation authority which serves the downtown Chattanooga, Brainerd, and Midtown routes. Service to Northgate Mall and Northpoint Boulevard are the northern most points of service on the western side north of the Tennessee River and a route to the Enterprise South Center on the River’s eastern side.

Looking at ridership in CARTA’s own data, fare-paying passengers reached a recent high of 88,260 in October 2023, but took a sharp decline to almost historically low levels in the last few years of data to 71,657 in January 2024.

It was in January this year that CARTA welcomed President and CEO Charles Frazier who immediately promised a strategic plan to align services with needs in the area, but also to address the net losses being reported monthly in CARTA’s publicly available “Variance Report.”

The challenge of operating public transportation is to provide those individuals without a physical method of transportation, or those who have no access to driving. Many, if not most, of these customers are low or fixed income individuals. A February report recording details the cost of bus transit per customer at $9.94, down from over $10 in 2023, likely reflecting soaring fuel costs. Those who ride CARTA shuttles cost the authority $3.39 per ride.

The economy of things is undeniable. As ridership declines, the cost per ride will increase.

Back in November 2022, a special report broadcast by Newschannel 9, the local ABC affiliate, revealed a decline in ridership and noted that only 7% of CARTA’s annual budget came from fares, the rest came from taxes, other sources of public funds, such as grants, and parking paid in downtown lots and meters owned by the transit authority.

Noting by experience, the Newschannel 9 reporter traveled routes with buses of capacity of up to 40 riders only having 1-5 riders at any given time.

What caused the stark warning spoken by the CARTA Board Chairman? Federal funds supplied by the US Government as subsidies to address operational gaps due to COVID are soon to expire. Yet many of the post-COVID policies remain impacting ridership, such as remote work by two large employers downtown, TVA and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee. As local government leaders approve budgets, the clear need for affordable transportation is an essential service for access to healthy foods, doctors’ appointments, and work. Hats off to Mr. Frazier for his leadership to see that establishing routes and right-sizing operations to serve the largest number of riders is key to holding down fares.