CARTA mass transit use has declined. Recently, it was reported CARTA (Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority) ridership dropped by 100,000. Lower gas prices and changing one bus drop-off location cannot explain that decline. This is an intriguing dilemma for a metropolitan area.
Hamilton County is evolving.
The population of East Hamilton County is expanding. The City of Chattanooga is growing. East Ridge, Redbank and Soddy Daisy are attracting more commercial and residential activities. Let the following statement sink in--The region is growing and mass transit ridership by CARTA is declining. Why?
Meanwhile, Hamilton County's largest public expense is education. Hamilton County is spending heavily to build new schools to accommodate new students. The Hamilton County School Board has struggled with the cost of education and how to provide quality school bus services for students throughout Hamilton County. Hamilton County taxpayers fund a morning and afternoon school bus service provided at great expense by a private company. Chattanooga taxpayers also spend significant money for largely empty CARTA buses to run downtown and out to a few places like Enterprise South. It appears we are paying to duplicate bus services and equiptment costs. School buses run twice a day and are idle other times of the day. The CARTA service is nonexistent outside of Chattanooga and too many buses carry 0-5 people. Mass transit really isn't mass transit, if a mass of people don't ride. Can practical people develop a solution that services the primary needs of Hamilton County?
Mass transit is extremely important in most large metropolitan areas. Many American cities have well developed mass transit. Most European cities of any size have developed efficient transit systems. Many entities use one efficient bus system to meet the needs of citizens and students creating economies of scale to use resources more efficiently. Hamilton County leaders should jointly explore transportation assets and needs from a countywide perspective and fund it via the countywide tax base. All could use it and all would pay.
Let's recap. County taxpayers fund a private school bus system that delivers bus service morning and afternoon for school children. Chattanooga funds a public transit system that is essentially focused on Chattanooga and frequently runs nearly empty buses. This situation has been the status quo for 30+ years. Why? There are three major reasons.
Number One: Hamilton County Commissioners have demonstrated no broad vision for mass transit in Hamilton County. Number Two: The cities in Hamilton County have elected officials that operate in mental and financial silos. They struggle individually to make ends meet based on isolated needs and limited funds. Their tax revenues often duplicate services leaving them less able to afford services that could better supplied and overseen using a countywide vision funded by the countywide tax dollars. Number Three: CARTA's Board has allowed CARTA to stay on a downward slide by becoming distracted by its multiple narrow pet projects. Here are a few: (construction of solar power generation sites, electric car sharing, and building of electric car charging stations throughout Chattanooga). What's missing from their flashy announcements is how these goodies will positively impact their bottom line. These projects will not likely bring a significant return on investment, because they will service too few people with too high operational expenses. Despite CARTA's protestations otherwise, their new share-a-electric-car-while-it's-owned-by-CARTA project directly competes with their mass transit mission. CARTA's "charge your own personal electric car for free at CARTA's 20 new charging stations" does not sound like it will help increase revenues either. That might change when more than 15% percent of our local population takes delivery on their next Tesla or Leaf electric car.
Meanwhile, let's get back to reality.
Though multiple cities are located in Hamilton County, Chattanooga is the only city that provides substantial local funds for CARTA bus services. Not surprisingly, most of CARTA's services are therefore delivered inside Chattanooga. Though CARTA ridership has declined 8%, Mayor Berke has proposed to increase Chattanooga's CARTA donation 6.8% for a city total of $5.4 million for 2019. Government is the only business where one can get a raise for doing less business or a poorer job each year. According to federal.gov figures, (with Chattanooga's help) CARTA will likely sustain its annual $22 million budget and give raises next year.
It's time for CARTA to do something spectacular ---like providing useful and cost effective mass transit for more, not fewer people. CARTA's CEO and the Board need to propose a countywide mass transportation vision to leaders across Hamilton County. If CARTA finds itself incapable of doing this, Chattanooga should take decisive action. The lack of new vision should result in a DECREASE of funding to CARTA. While paying more for lower ridership is the "government way," its not an incentive to improve and makes no sense.
Citizens: How do you pick an elected official? Do you vote based on the pretty glossy campaign photos showing the candidate standing with their lovely family or do you select by the photo of the candidate standing with the carefully staged group of earnest looking members of the community? That makes no sense. This year try a radical technique. Ask the candidate, "Are you interested in pursuing a cost effective plan for servicing school students and affordable mass transit in Hamilton County?" See how many of them assume the look of a deer caught standing in the headlights in the middle of a busy street at night. Vote accordingly.
* * *
Some may find it odd to hear me say this, but I almost always agree with Deborah Scott. We both believe in good governance, effective, evidence based policy making, and what I call the public service ethic – public officials (elected, appointed, and career) putting the people and communities they serve above career ambition and personal gain. I cannot say that about many.
When Deborah was first elected to the city council not all that many years ago, I happened to be doing strategic planning work for Mayor Littlefield’s administration at the time. The first thing I learned about Deborah was that she did her homework and did it more thoroughly than any council member I had observed previously or have observed since, with the exception of Ron Littlefield who had the advantage of doing his homework over a period of several years of distinguished public service before being elected to the council. Deborah’s article on the need for a new transit vision was proof that her opinions are well studied and not lacking in vision of her own, not to mention wisdom that can only be gained through experience. I’m not talking about one year of experience repeated as many times as it takes to draw a pension, but experience actually trying to change things for the better.
I have nothing to add to Deborah’s comments on the need for new transit vision except to point out that that her vision is so much broader than the narrow focus of our current leaders who seem to be obsessed only with the area already well served by transit routes between the Choo Choo and the riverfront. It is time city leaders start listening to the voices of experience and wisdom in the community, especially now that Chattanooga is officially the seventh “worst run city in America.” (More to come on that, I promise.)