Charlottesville’s bus system, which also serves parts of Albemarle, is facing a “death spiral.”

Those are strong words — and they come from the system’s new director, Garland Williams.

All the more reason to take them seriously.

Ridership has been crashing, he reported. Five years ago, the Charlottesville Area Transit carried 2.4 million passengers. This year, the number is down to 1.8 million — and the hemorrhaging hasn’t stopped yet. CAT expects to lose another 100,000 riders next year.

CAT has gone through several route adjustments in that period: 2014, 2016, 2018. Some have been described as “minor” — but even minor changes can have significant impact at the passengers’ level.

Popular Route 7 was reduced in frequency from four times an hour to three, the result of budget cuts. (To its credit, CAT already had added Route 11, which reduced travel time from Fashion Square Mall in the county to downtown in the city.)

Last year, Route 9 saw a reduction in service, as had other routes before it.

And passengers have complained about repositioning of some bus stops, which — although not significant in terms of distance shifted, nonetheless resulted in passengers waiting in often muddy, slippery conditions and standing dangerously close to the edges of county roads.

And there’s more.

In 2014, new fare boxes were installed with the aim of improving fare collections and providing a more accurate way to track ridership. But Mr. Williams said the boxes are unreliable. So CAT might not know precisely how many people are riding and paying their fares.

Yet there’s a problem in getting rid of the boxes: They were purchased with federal funds under a requirement that they be used for 10 years; CAT has another five to go.

While CAT is staring at a “death spiral” of reduced ridership, a completely different problem looms. Like many people in the city, people in the urban ring of Albemarle County might be willing to ride the bus more consistently — if they could depend on it to get them where they want to go, when they need to be there.

County leaders have been pressing CAT to improve and even increase services to meet this perceived demand. There also have been frequent suggestions to create a truly regional transit authority with greater coordination with the University of Virginia bus system and with JAUNT, which provides paratransit and bus services across multiple jurisdictions.

Mr. Williams said: “I’ve got to fix what we have first before we talk about doing anything bigger or grander.”

Sounds reasonable — maybe. But if “fixes” include even more cutbacks in service, CAT is likely to see its death spiral intensified as even fewer passengers find that it meets their needs.

CAT’s director did agree, however, that it makes sense to serve growth areas, many of which are in the county — perhaps hinting at an area of possible expansion.

We suspect that CAT needs new routes and improved services to reverse its decline — which could be expensive initially. But that’s a possibility local governments must face if they want CAT to survive and thrive.


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