CHARLOTTE – At 3:40 on a Monday afternoon, Bus 590 operated by the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) stops at the Northlake Mall park and ride lot after a 25-minute trip from Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT).
About a dozen passengers, most in uniform but a few in more leisurely attire, step off and take a short walk to their car, or just a little bit longer stroll to an apartment complex across the parking lot. Barbara Voyce and Richard Dewitt are among them.
“I ride it, I love it, and I tell everyone I can about it,” American Airlines employee Voyce says about CATS 590, a director connector between Northlake Mall and the airport terminal. “I’ve been a regular since the service began in 2014.”
Dewitt, wearing a yellow vest identifying him as an American Airlines ground crew member, shares a similar opinion.
“I ride it every day,” Dewitt said, “and I know 10 or 15 other people who live around here who ride it too.”
But now Voyce, Dewitt and other regular riders are worried that, starting this fall, the direct route between Northlake and the airport will no longer be available.
Many other supporters
Kelli Witte, a 30-year flight attendant who lives in Huntersville, wasn’t on that particular 590 trip, but she is a Bus 590 supporter. When she commutes, the 590 is her means of travel.
“I use it religiously,” Witte said. “I plan on it. And I make sure friends coming in to visit and other flight attendants know about it too. It saves money, it saves wear and tear on my car, it just makes sense.”
Pat Cronin, an American Airlines captain who lives in Davidson, is also a 590 fan.
“It’s a great service,” Cronin said. “You get on, read the paper, check your phone, relax a little, and they drop you off right at the terminal. It takes cars off the road, especially around the airport, and you avoid the airport parking lots. And when we have people flying in to visit, we just tell them ‘Take the 590.’ We pick them up at Northlake instead of driving to the airport. There are a lot of good things about it.”
Voyce, Dewitt, Witte and Cronin are among a regional group of CATS 590 passengers – primarily airline and airport employees – who have come to rely on the bus for their commutes. And they are adamantly opposed to announced intentions by CATS and CLT to discontinue the service in October.
The group also includes more than 500 people who have signed an online petition started by CLT-based flight attendant Megan Smither.
“It is incredibly convenient, hassle-free way to get to the airport,” Smither wrote in the introduction to her petition. “The termination will not only negatively impact me but countless other airport employees and travelers who use this service.”
The group’s objective is to spread the word about the 590 service and encourage more users while also trying to work out some type of compromise to derail the CATS and CLT plans.
Supply and demand
CATS reports that the average number of passengers on a 590 trip, a route served by two buses traveling between Northlake and CLT 60 times a day between 4:50 a.m. and 11:50 p.m., is three. Because of those low ridership numbers, the service is scheduled for termination.
An emailed statement from Krystel Green, public and community relations manager for CATS, summarized the situation.
“The service is provided through a partnership with CLT,” Green wrote. “The airport pays for 100 percent of the service allowing its employees to ride for free. The annual cost of the service is approximately $989,000. Members of the general public pay the local fare each way. Route 590 ranks very low in terms of ridership with an average 3 passengers per trip. Due to low ridership, it was proposed that the service be discontinued at the end of June. At public meetings held in early April, the community expressed the desire to keep the route. At the airport’s direction, CATS will continue the route until October 2018.”
A statement issued by the CLT media office delivered a similar message.
“(The airport) and CATS teamed up in 2014 to offer a new express bus service as a transportation option to the airport for airport employees (all airport employees – not just aviation department employees). The airport has subsidized the route for four years. Ridership has steadily declined on this route and is one of the least used CATS routes. The airport has notified CATS it will no longer subsidize the route and has been advised from CATS that CATS is not planning to continue the route without the airport subsidizing it. The airport will continue subsidizing the route until October 2018.”
Ideas to avoid an end
Supporters of Bus 590 acknowledge the low ridership numbers but suggest tweaks in the service could make it more viable. Voyce and Dewitt, who ride the bus on most workdays, said the bus has plenty of riders during most morning and afternoon commutes but not during off-peak hour trips. Mid-afternoon Monday, for example, when they arrived back at Northlake, about 12 passengers exited the bus, but none boarded for the return trip.
Voyce and Dewitt suggested an adjustment in the number of trips, especially during off-peak times, would raise the average passenger count, as could a marketing campaign to inform more people about bus service.
Witte and Cronin agreed, and said a scaled-back but reliable schedule would be a good starting point.
“Once an hour would work,” Witte said. “You could plan for that. It doesn’t have to be every 30 minutes as long as you know the schedule.”
And both agreed that most airport and airline employees would be willing to pay regular fares for the service they now get for free.
“I’d pay 2 or 3 dollars, whatever it is, because it’s worth it,” Cronin said. “I don’t use it because it’s free – it’s convenient.”
Cronin also said he would like to see CATS and CLT officials research the possibility of adding a loading point closer to Cornelius or Davidson for service to the airport.
“There are a lot of airline and airport employees and others around here and in Iredell County who need to get to the airport on a regular basis,” Cronin said.
He added that he believes the current 590 route is a valuable service and hopes CATS and CLT officials are willing to consider ways to keep it.
“It’s disheartening for all of us who ride it to think about it not being available,” he said. “I think they have a really good thing, they just haven’t executed it to the fullest.”
Vanpools work in Denver
In statements about the planned termination of Bus 590 service, CATS and CLT said one goal is to work with airport employees to develop “alternative means of transportation between north Mecklenburg and the airport.” In its statement, CATS specifically referenced the option of vanpool service.
And if anyone needs convincing about vanpool possibilities, Denver resident Lynnsie McManus is a willing spokesperson.
“It’s the mac daddy, it really is,” said McManus, a member of a four-person vanpool that uses a new CATS Ford Explorer for daily commutes between Lincoln County to uptown Charlotte. The group meets each workday morning in the parking lot of Walmart not far from the N.C. 73/N.C. 16 intersection.
McManus works in uptown Charlotte and said other members of her group work nearby at Duke Energy headquarters. The members share gas and parking expenses.
“It saves money, and it is really a good service,” McManus said. “I guess a bus would make more sense if you had enough riders going to the same place every day, but this really works out for me.”
She learned about the vanpool program on the CATS website (www.charlottenc.gov/cats). When she signed up, there were no seats available. But when more Denver-area residents with the same general daily destination signed up, a new group formed. CATS representatives contacted her about the opening.
“I’ve been doing this for a few years,” she said, adding she has lived in Denver for seven years. McManus said she remembered when CATS provided bus service between Lincoln County and uptown Charlotte (it was a grant-funded experiment that only lasted a year, according to Transportation Lincoln County Transportation Manager Kristal Ford) but didn’t know details about vanpool options.
Now, she’s happy with the option she found.
“I don’t want to think about the possibility that they might stop this program,” McManus said.
She added that several vanpools load and unload at the Walmart site, and she believes one of them goes to the Charlotte airport.
According to CATS: “Vanpools are a convenient, cost-effective way for five to 15 commuters to share their ride to work. A vanpool consists of a group of people who live or work near each other and share similar commuting schedules. Each vanpool tailors its schedule around the group's needs, with members deciding pick-up and drop-off locations and times. A member of the vanpool drives the vanpool. Members pay a monthly fee based on the number of riders and round trip mileage. CATS supplies the van, fuel, insurance and other administrative expenses.”