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Preventing the death spiral: CAT looks to the future
Chatham Area Transit looks for community input on models to keep the system viable
High Coverage Concept.

CHATHAM AREA TRANSIT officials last week unveiled two radically different concepts for the bus system’s future. It’s part of the agency’s attempt to stem years of declining ridership and prevent a death spiral of funding.

Sometime in the next few months, the CAT Board, which includes three members of the Chatham County Commission and one member of Savannah City Council, among others, will decide which concept to embrace.

This will represent the first system-wide redesign of CAT’s bus routes in many decades, possibly leading to major changes in the way transit commuters access jobs, schools, health care and everyday life. CAT wants your feedback before they make a decision.

So here are the choices. The first concept (called the “High Coverage Concept”) looks a lot like the existing system, with some minor tweaks.

It prioritizes covering as much area as possible, whether or not people actually use the bus in all areas.

This choice is okay for people in Georgetown and Wilmington Island – and for the four people each hour who are going to Skidaway Island or Coffee Bluff, costing CAT, in the latter case, an estimated $24 per boarding. Giving them Ubers would be cheaper.

I say only “okay” for those people because taking a bus to these places already involves a ride that is long, circuitous, irregular and not convenient in any way.

The High Coverage Concept doesn’t improve things very much for them. But it’s the only choice they have. Because the second concept (called the “High Ridership Concept”) leaves them without bus service.

Stakeholders advising CAT, including me, appear to favor some version of the second concept because it prioritizes serving more people and serving them better.

High Frequency Concept.
High Frequency Concept.

More frequent busses, more direct routes, better weekend and night hours are all offered here. This choice is great for people, again like myself, who use popular bus routes, like the Abercorn and MLK corridors, among others, that always seem to have full busses.

Concept designers also believe that this choice will appeal to in-town residents who currently don’t ride the bus – but might if the wait were shorter and the ride less “mosey-here, mosey-there.” Get me there fast. Get me there now. But the lines are drawn.

“My constituents are still going to be paying into the millage rate,” says Chatham County Commissioner Jay Jones, a CAT Board member who represents growing suburban areas like Georgetown and 204 / I-16, where land is cheaper and housing is more affordable.

“Imagine a woman pushing a buggy to get to the bus stop at Walmart,” he says. “She’d have to walk a mile under the High Ridership Concept. I can’t support that.”

And he has a point. People deserve service for their taxes. But much of this isn’t CAT’s problem.

“I don’t want CAT to cater to sprawl,” says Clinton Edminster, a CAT board member. “CAT should be the rock on which development takes place. We need to develop in a more sustainable way.”

People live and work out there. But it’s very costly to serve them.

And here’s where we could have long discussions about housing affordability, employer recruitment, zoning, highway subsidies and other issues that CAT, frankly, isn’t charged with solving.

CAT, as I see it, has two goals: move people and keep itself solvent.

Since much of CAT’s funding is tied to ridership, continuing to prioritize areas instead of people will continue the agency’s funding decline, leading to less service, leading to less riders, leading to less funding: a death spiral.

Something has to change.

But what about Georgetown and other suburbs? Couldn’t we serve everybody with great service? Yes. But you’d have to pay for it – on the order of increasing CAT’s budget by 50%.

I’d support that! But again: County Commission, City Council, millage, politics.

Learn the details for yourself about the two options. And pay close attention to who’s riding what and where.

You can do that and give CAT Board members your opinions about this choice through May 15 by going to LetsGo.Catchacat.Org