NC: CATS New Airport Bus Service Slow to Catch On

The summer parking crunch is on at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, but a new remote shuttle bus service that airport officials hoped would help ease congestion is off to a slow start.

Since its launch in mid-June, the two routes from south and north Charlotte to the airport have averaged 28 fare-paying riders a day each, according to data from the Charlotte Area Transit System. At their low point on June 18, only 13 people rode the buses.

Spokespeople for the Charlotte Area Transit System and Charlotte Douglas said the numbers are trending up, and pointed to last week, when the bus routes combined to break the 100-rider mark on four days. The airport and CATS are promoting the service to airport workers, hoping to expand ridership.

"As we work with the airport to market this transportation option, I'm sure we'll see even more of an increase," said CATS spokeswoman Judy Dellert-O'keef .

The bus routes, called Route 590 and Route 591, pick up passengers at Northlake Mall and the Archdale, Tyvola and Woodlawn Lynx Blue Line stations. The buses run every half hour from the park-and-ride lots to Charlotte Douglas, from 5 a.m. until midnight, seven days a week.

No overnight parking is allowed at the bus lots. The new service is "designed to primarily accommodate airport employees and travelers who are dropped off at the bus stop," according to a memo from the airport.

With 38 scheduled round trips a day, the bus routes have averaged well under one fare-paying rider per trip for their first two-and-half weeks of operation.

Charlotte Douglas is paying CATS $175,000 to operate the bus routes during a 60-day pilot. That means the per-day cost to operate the buses comes to $1,458 per route.

Based on ridership numbers during the first 18 days, Charlotte Douglas has paid $52 per fare-paying rider during that period. CATS charges a $3 fare.

Dellert-Okeef said the CATS ridership numbers do not include airport employees who are taking the shuttles for free. She said CATS was unable to provide those numbers on Monday. But Dellert-O'keef said CATS considers the numbers good for the launch of new routes, and said it's too early to calculate an average cost-per-rider.

"A cost per rider this early would be inaccurate," she said.

Airport spokeswoman Lee Davis said the cost-per-rider figure doesn't capture the full benefits of the new shuttle service. With at least 50 fewer cars a day in the airport's parking lots, she said more parking spots are available for travelers who need them. Also, with more airport employees taking the bus to work, Davis said more shuttle buses could be freed up to ferry travelers from parking lots at the airport to the terminal and back.

Davis also said that using the limited time since the service's start to look at average costs doesn't take into account future growth in the number of riders, which would bring the cost-per-rider down.

"The airport is interested in seeing those numbers grow," said Davis. "It's a pilot program. We're using the time to see how the customers are using it."

The two new bus routes are the latest attempt by Charlotte Douglas to deal with the dual problem of a busy summer travel season and the loss of thousands of parking spaces to construction projects. Officials have been warning that lots will be extremely full all summer. Some days, more than 90 percent of spots have been taken, making it difficult for travelers to find parking.

Charlotte Douglas is in the midst of building a new hourly parking deck, which will have 4,000 public parking spaces and 3,000 spaces for rental cars. The $120 million project is expected to open in November. But until then, the airport has lost thousands of parking spaces, since it tore down the old hourly decks in front of the terminal.

Davis said no decision has been made yet on whether to extend the service past the 60-day trial period. The airport is considering extending the service for six months, through the holiday travel season.

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