Director: Goal of CATS is service, not profit

CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson The Clovis Area Transit System buses run six days per week, with 24-hour reservation required and a charge of 75 cents per ride.

Kevin Wilson

The honk comes, and Frank Cole arrives with quarters in hand.

Cole is about 14 blocks from his Seventh Street residence to his healthcare job on 21st Street. It would take him about 20 minutes to do the journey on foot. But for 75 cents he can save 15 minutes by hopping on the bus and having a friendly chat with Clovis Area Transit System driver Angel Harvey.

“It’s not too bad, considering the other places I’ve lived,” Cole said as the CATS bus rolled past Dennis Chavez Park. “In Colorado, it was $1.75.

“It beats walking.”

Cole is one of four on-demand riders for this 45-minute block Saturday with CATS, a bus system which makes about 65,000 trips a year with reservations made 24 hours in advance.

“Basically, our ridership stays pretty level,” CATS Director Mary Lou Kemp said. “When we see peaks is when the fuel price goes up.

Comparably speaking, Clovis’ price of 75 cents a trip (or $5 for a 10-ride pass) is much cheaper than other cities in New Mexico. But Kemp said a price hike wouldn’t benefit the city at all.

The approximate $49,000 the city receives from fares gets counted against federal subsidies — which provide $450,000 of CATS’s $700,000 annual budget. An extra quarter would produce another $16,000, but that money would be counted against its subsidy and would anger riders.

“We try to increase our ridership rather than raising the rates because you do lose riders,” said Paul Sorensen, the transit director for Roswell’s Pecos Trails Transit.

Also, Kemp said, profit is not the goal.

“Public transportation was never intended to make money. It is offered as a service for the community,” Kemp said. “It depends on a lot of variables, but it would have to increase to $6 a trip (to be profitable).”

The city formerly had a cab service, which Kemp misses because it could serve county residents.

“When the cab service was here, we would work hand-in-hand with each other,” Kemp said. “I hated to see them go.”

The next challenge is a fixed route service, but resources aren’t there. Currently, Kemp said, CATS employs 10 drivers, eight of them full-time, with another four employees dedicated to other tasks. A fixed route upgrade would require two more drivers and a transit director to make sure buses were running on time. The total investment would be another $100,000 annually, Kemp estimated.

Other cities of comparable size to Clovis have had their struggles, but cities surveyed each had some form of fixed route service in place:

Roswell: Pecos Transit Trails started in 1992 as a fixed-route service, and it now averages about 12,000 to 15,000 riders per month, Sorensen said.

There are 22 drivers on staff, 15 part time, running seven buses on weekdays and two on Saturdays on the route.

“It’s about 27 minutes between buses,” Sorensen said. “The route is all the way from the mall to the air center. It’s a pretty long route. It takes an hour from one end to the other.”

The budget is around $900,000 per year, with about half of the money coming from federal dollars, Sorensen said. The city picks up the rest.

“We haven’t had any trouble. We have a gas tax. We get one cent of the gas tax, which is part of the funding. The city’s been pretty good about taking care of us.”

Hobbs: The Hobbs Express is on its second go-around with fixed routes. The bus service has been in operation since 1989, and an unsuccessful addition of fixed route was attempted in 1995.

The second attempt at fixed route, City Clerk Jan Fletcher said, has been better.

“The routes were determined by using the major trip generators in the current demand response system and then connecting those points along major thoroughfares with consideration for safety hazards and high traffic areas. We tried diligently to cover all areas of shopping, apartment complexes and medical facilities.”

Fletcher said the Express averages about 2,000 riders per month. Fixed route trips are $1 per trip, and demand response is $2.

It operates on a budget of $600,000 to cover seven full-time drivers, a dispatcher and a supervisor. Two administrative staff members, including Franklin, assist with grant management. The program receives about $350,000 in grant revenues, $25,000 in fares and the remainder comes from the city’s general fund.

“One of the biggest challenges which has always faced Hobbs Express is getting the message across and educating the public that ‘public transportation’ is available to all citizens in the community,” Fletcher said. “Many people think it is for senior citizens or disabled citizens only.”

Carlsbad: The Carlsbad Municipal Transit System is in a transition. The city started its fixed route service Tuesday, and is offering three months of free transportation via the fixed route.

Transit Manager Jo Ann Moore said a few days in, results are positive.

After the promotional period, the fixed route will be $1 (with children 5 and younger riding free with a paid adult fare). On-demand rides will be $2. Of the system’s 5,000 riders a month, 40 percent are either elderly, wheelchair-bound or otherwise handicapped.

“You’re never able to serve every customer,” Moore said. “It’s very demanding to do the demand-response. All we’re doing with the fixed route is taking pressure off the demand response.”

The program works on a budget of $332,000, with $214,000 spent locally. That covers 20 drivers, though 15 of them are part time.