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University affiliate use of free Charlottesville Area Transit drops during 2018 fiscal year

The University has had an annual, prepaid deal with CAT for 11 years

<p>The University provides annual contract funding for both the free trolley service and student, staff and faculty fares on CAT buses.</p>

The University provides annual contract funding for both the free trolley service and student, staff and faculty fares on CAT buses.

Since 2007, University students, faculty, staff and healthcare workers have been able to use Charlottesville Area Transit buses at no cost, due to a prepaid deal between the transit system and the University. The deal allows anyone with a valid University ID to ride all CAT buses for free. During the 2018 fiscal year, University affiliates’ usage of free CAT transportation dropped for the first time in six years, according to CAT Director John Jones.

In 2012, U.Va.-affiliates’ ridership on CAT buses numbered 361,801. In 2015, when U.Va. ID scan features were added to CAT buses and could more accurately assess University passenger counts, University-affiliated ridership numbered 435,349 trips. The number continued to steadily grow until the 2018 fiscal year, when University ridership dropped by 20,111 trips, or a 3.8 percent decline.

The pre-paid deal was developed in 2003 by former University executive vice president Leonard Sandridge and former Charlottesville Transit Director Helen Poore. Implemented in 2005, the plan originally involved month-long trials of free-ridership deals for University members which proved to reduce both traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.

“In that era, [free University ridership] was done to enhance the ridership of CAT, since we were trying to grow the system at the time, and it was just an easy way to do that,” Jones said. “If you make something free, people are going to take advantage of it. It was just a gesture of goodwill between the two organizations, and they struck a deal.”

Today, the University provides annual contract funding for both the free trolley service and student, staff and faculty fares on CAT buses. During the 2017 fiscal year, the University provided $241,600 in funding for CAT — $72,800 was dedicated towards the free trolley service — the only CAT route of 13 that offers users free rides — and $168,800 was dedicated towards subsidizing remaining CAT fares for University affiliates.

“It’s something the University pays for on an annual basis,” CAT Marketing Coordinator Westley Kern said. “In fiscal year 2017, U.Va. staff, faculty, and employees made up just under 24 percent of our ridership, and totalled 519,626 trips.”

Use of free CAT buses typically remains fairly steady, and the drop in bus usage could be linked to a wide variety of causes, Jones said. Anything from University enrollment to a general push for a healthier lifestyle could impact bus system usage. 

“[U.Va. ridership] hasn’t fluctuated much, but it’s off a little bit this year,” Jones said. “My take is that nowadays, folks live a little bit closer to various resources, they’re willing to walk a little farther. Maybe the focus on being a healthy person has lead more people to walk or ride their bikes a little more. A lot of it stems from University enrollment, general weather conditions, things like that.”

According to U.Va.’s 2017 fiscal year funding and passenger counts, every University-affiliated trip costs the University 46.5 cents. Each trip costs the CAT system $2.99, but federal and state funding eases the transit system’s operating cost burden.

“By leveraging federal and state money, the smaller organizations and localities don’t have to bear the whole cost burden of operating,” Kern wrote in an email. “This is why some other universities, such as VT and JMU, rely on their local municipality’s transit system to provide some or all of their transit service.”

The contract pricing that the University pays for affiliates to have free bus service is reevaluated on a yearly basis. The 2018 fiscal year report has not been released yet and it is uncertain how much funding U.Va. provided CAT with in 2018.


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