When Chatham Area Transit officials dedicate the downtown transit center on Oglethorpe Avenue, they will be celebrating not only the completion of renovations but also a rebranding of an embattled agency.
The Joe Murray Rivers Jr. Intermodal Transit Center at the Greyhound bus station underwent a $15 million makeover. Now, it's CAT's headquarters and, starting Monday, its central bus portal in addition to continued Greyhound operations.
A dedication ceremony is scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday.
Renovations to the transit center were extensive, involving interior design improvements and new features such as a ticket counter.
CAT administrative offices occupy one side of the facility that was once home to a fast food restaurant. Monthly board meetings will take place in an airy conference room.
More importantly, the center will serve as the passenger loading area for all downtown buses instead of Broughton Street near the courthouse. Greyhound, which leases space at the center, has been reduced to occupying four bus bays.
Beneath soaring metal canopies, the center features monitors at each bus bay and other areas of the facility that display real-time arrivals and departures in addition to other information.
CAT is looking to develop a similar information technology system on a smaller scale at individual bus stops. Such a "super stop" site is in development with the city of Savannah on Waters Avenue at 36th Street.
A pilot bike-share program, which will allow customers to rent bicycles from a solar-powered kiosk at the center, is expected to start in November.
With the newly transformed center, CAT sees an opportunity to transform its image from a troubled transit agency, saddled with a public reputation for inefficiency and fiscal problems, into a leading transportation alternative in the region.
CAT Executive Director Chad Reese pointed to growing evidence that shows changing demographics nationwide are leading to fewer automobile drivers.
Just six in 10 Americans ages 17-19 have drivers' licenses, compared to eight in 10 30-years ago, according to University of Michigan researchers, who noted an inverse relationship to Internet usage. And aging baby boomers are expected to drive less as more leave the workforce.
In 2011, 15 percent of the county's roughly 104,900 commuters used alternative transportation, including public transportation, carpools, bicycles and walking, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
CAT's ridership increased 4.9 percent from 2011 to 2012, following a downward trend from 2006 to 2009, according to agency data.
"The premise that we're going to operate in an automobile, urban-design society is a fallacy," Reese said.
"Yet, we struggle against the mindset that people think the automobile is still going to be leading the way 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now. It's not going to happen, and we have to prepare for what's coming."
A number of service changes that take effect Monday have been made following public meetings and board approval of a five-year transportation plan over the summer.
The most touted of the changes has been a new, non-stop express route from the center to the airport that will run Mondays through Saturdays.
But a new route 3 will replace the former route 2, which used to service the airport, and extend it beyond Jimmy Deloach Parkway in west Chatham County to Highlands and Benton boulevards. Service will also be operating during later hours.
"This is significant because my residents, citizens of the city of Savannah, pay the CAT tax and were not receiving the CAT service," said Savannah Alderman Van Johnson, who lobbied for the route extension.
Ramond Robinson, CAT's chief development officer, said the goal is to increase ridership in the high employment area that includes the airport, Gulfstream, JCB and Georgia Tech Savannah.
"It's an opportunity for economic development because of employment and at the same business development because it does capture the tourist space," Robinson said.