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CARTA - "On The Brink Of Going Out Of Business" - Seeks To Woo City, County Help; Cashless Fare Boxes Eyed

  • Friday, May 17, 2024
  • Hannah Campbell

As millions in federal pandemic relief funds begin to dry up and local funding continues to stagnate, CARTA Chairman Johan de Nysschen encouraged the board of commissioners to re-kindle relationships with county and city officials, the “custodians of funding,” he said.

“We are going to have to engage,” he told them Thursday at their May meeting. “I think that we need to have a very carefully crafted approach now.”

“We are on the brink of going out of business. That's what it means. That’s what ‘fiscal cliff’ means,” he said, but “I can’t imagine that Chattanooga would contemplate a future without CARTA.”

Mr. de Nysschen said that funding from the county and city has remained flat for five years, in effect a 20 percent funding decrease and “erosion of purchasing power.”

President and CEO Charles Frazier, who was hired in January, presented a few solutions in his First 100 Days report to the board.

He prioritized composing a compelling strategic plan to attract funding from local government and other partners, he said. He also listed a separate Incline Railway master plan and paying for a CARTA-wide initial infrastructure design.

Mr. Frazier told the board that CARTA must also fix its foundation by adding new key staff positions and modifying its routes. He wants new data, gathered with modern technology, to assess efficiency and possible expansion zones for fixed routes, Care-A-Van paratransit service and the CARTA Go microtransit service.

“If you’re not measuring it, we can’t manage it,” he said.

“The opportunities for success are abundant,” Mr. Frazier said, but “the foundation of the organization must be fixed first.” Mr. Frazer said funding partners and investors want evidence that CARTA is controlling costs and eliminating waste.

The term “fiscal cliff” emerged in February as Mr. de Nysschen questioned the sustainability of the transit agency’s new and problematic on-demand microtransit service, CARTA Go.

Chairman de Nysschen labeled CARTA’s fiscal cliff an “existential threat.”

“Saving isn’t enough,” he said.

Mr. Frazier had told the board in March that CARTA has been getting by with the use of one-time federal ARPA funds, but those are running out. The amount remaining is just over $4 million. CARTA received a total $10,784,808 in ARPA funds to help navigate through the COVID pandemic.

Despite the fiscal woes, the CARTA board passed a 2024-2025 budget that tops $31 million - an increase of 12.67 percent from current spending. It relies on $1,126,523 of ARPA funds.

Raising prices for Incline tickets

CARTA will host a pubic hearing regarding an increase in Incline tickets, from $15 to $20 for adults and from $7 to $10 for children. The increase hits a pre-determined cap of 25 percent, plus a $1.25 ticket charge for capital expenses.

In talks with Rock City, the park had recommended offering an Incline annual pass for $75, which would include parking at the St. Elmo lot, it was stated.

The hearing is May 22 at 5 p.m. at the CARTA Shuttle Park South conference room on Market Street by the Choo Choo.

Incline “keeps the lights on” 

CARTA General Manager of Planning and Grants Phil Pugliese reported that the Incline lost $150,000 in sales, or 48 percent, in April. The attraction was closed for 18 days in the month to replace the main cable.

Chairman de Nysschen blasted the decision to perform the maintenance in “high season,” but Mr. Frazier said delays in the cable’s delivery had made the schedule unavoidable.

“Seriously the Incline is the largest source of our revenue,” Chairman de Nysschen said. “It keeps the lights on.”

Expanding the city’s paid parking zone

CARTA will ask City Council to approve expansion of the paid parking zone. Then the CARTA board will vote more specifically where and how to expand it, adding to CARTA’s parking revenue.

CARTA CFO Sonja Sparks reported that parking revenues were up $81,000 in April due to the fifty cent-per-hour increase in metered parking fees, effective Oct. 1, 2023.

The board discussed ways to fill available parking to capacity.

“There is a lot of availability in our lots,” said board member Corey Evatt.

The CARTA operations committee will present a comprehensive study of parking expansion in June which will address signage, real-time inventory technology and long-term agreements with local hotels.

New fare boxes

The board voted unanimously to support Mr. Frazier’s first two steps toward new fare boxes, which might eventually mean cashless buses.

Mr. Frazier recommended that CARTA conduct its own Title VI study to evaluate local accessibility with cashless buses. He also asked for a mobile ticketing pilot program.

“We don’t want people to be inconvenienced and end up without access,” Chairman de Nysschen said.

Mr. Frazier said that “a new fare-collection system” was presented to him as a priority when he was hired, but replacements for the fare boxes CARTA has now aren’t available to buy, it was stated.

“I’m hearing from the board we should do this quickly,” he said.

The cashless study would set the purchase of fare boxes back by six to eight months, said Annie Powell. Ms. Powell is the director of grants, technology and research and the DBE coordinator.

But the road to cashless buses may be even longer than that.

In her presentation comparing pricing and services of different fare boxes, Ms. Powell held up as system examples Dayton, Ohio, and Knoxville. She said Dayton is the only city in the nation with cashless fare boxes onboard its buses, a system it implemented in 2021, and Knoxville plans to finish converting to cashless this fall.

Mr. Frazier and Mr. de Nysschen hinted that cashless buses will soon become the norm in the rest of the country.

Board member Corey Evatt said buying fare boxes first would put the cart before the horse.

CARTA looks to Knoxville, whose transition has required a new bus terminal, hubs, ticket vending machines, and other infrastructure. Knoxville works with Masabi, a fare collection firm that has partnerships with retailers who sell bus tickets and reload smartcards.

“This is a big undertaking and I just don’t know that we are ready to entertain the conversation,” he said. “We do not have the infrastructure available for people.”

“The reliance on cash is huge,” he said.

Mr. Evatt said Masabi’s prefab system may not fit Hamilton County. All of downtown Chattanooga only has three Masabi retailers, he said: One Dollar General, one Circle K and one Speedway, not to mention the cost of a new bus terminal, hubs and ticket vending machines throughout the route.

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