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Planning group approves funding change for CAT passenger count system

Charlottesville Area Transit could soon have a better idea of how many people ride its buses and its most popular routes.

The Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization approved shifting money around to fund passenger count systems during its meeting on Wednesday.

The MPO is a federally mandated planning group comprised of officials from Charlottesville, Albemarle County, the University of Virginia and state and federal transportation agencies. It covers the city and urbanized parts of the county, including Crozet.

The policy board approved the replacement of a fiscal 2020 project in its Transportation Improvement Program, which covers a three-year period through fiscal 2021.

No CAT representatives attended the meeting.

CAT requested that $595,000 earmarked to upgrade its on-board surveillance systems instead be used to purchase automatic passenger count systems for its 36 buses.

Chuck Proctor, Culpeper District planner for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said that the data counters are more important to the agency.

“This will allow them to better collect that data so they can better service that system,” he said.

The majority of the funding, $476,000, comes from the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

The agency serves 12 routes in the city as well as a free trolley route, according to its website.

CAT Director Garland Williams has said that he is “aggressively” trying to increase ridership to keep the agency out of a “death spiral” ahead of new changes to state funding mechanisms.

At a Regional Transit Partnership meeting in October, Williams said that the agency is receiving poor passenger counts from unreliable fareboxes.

While ridership has decreased thanks to an unreliable transit system, the failing technology has exacerbated the issue by providing low counts that are used by federal agencies to determine funding.

Proctor said CAT can track how many people get on the bus, but not when they get off.

Williams has said that five years ago, CAT had 2.4 million passenger trips. That number has dropped to 1.8 million this year and the system expects to lose another 100,000.

Williams has also raised the alarm about a state funding mechanism set to go into effect on July 1 that will allocate funding based on performance and focus on total ridership over a rolling three-year period.

Sean Tubbs of the Piedmont Environmental Council said sometimes the fareboxes aren’t even working and drivers rely on a hand count. He said the technology will be important as the funding mechanisms change.

“Hopefully this will take out some of the human error and get us some better numbers,” Tubbs said.

In other business, the board signed off on an amendment to the memorandum of understanding for the Regional Transit Partnership, thus making UVa a voting member of that planning body.


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