For those who are not aware, Western Carolina University has its own on-campus transportation system known as CAT-TRAN, which serves students, staff, faculty and visitors both day and night. The only times that CAT-TRAN buses do not run is when classes are not in session.
There has been a buzz around campus since the first day of classes centering on CAT-TRAN’s new buses and routes for the 2012 school year. Where did these new buses come from? Why were the routes changed?
As the University Police manage CAT-TRAN, Chief of Police Ernie Hudson sat down with The Western Carolinian for an in-depth look at the CAT-TRAN transportation service.
Chief Hudson explained the situation surrounding the new buses now seen on campus.
“We try to replace a bus each year. Normally a rotation is set up to replace the aging buses. Due to the economic situation in some years, we have not replaced buses, but we are pretty much back on track now,” said Hudson.
Two buses were purchased for the new Health & Human Sciences Building. One was bought two years ago in anticipation of the HHS Building, and the second was purchased at the beginning of this summer, according to Hudson.
“[The HHS Building buses] were purchased using University funds. Our usual replacements are purchased using funds from the transportation fees that are collected,” said Hudson.
Hudson said that buses are purchased based on state contracts and/or a bidding process. The contracts for state vehicles are entered into at the state level in Raleigh.
“We do not control the contract process. There are very strict purchasing processes that have to be followed,” said Hudson. “As with any large purchase, they are subject to audit. Buses range from about $50k to about $75k. The smaller buses are less expensive. Disability equipped buses are more expensive than others.”
Some vendors the University has purchased buses from are National Bus Sales, Palmetto Bus Sales and Carolina Thomas LLC.
In order to save money, Hudson explained that there is a new color driving around campus.
“As a cost savings measure, we have stopped purchasing purple buses and instead have moved to the basic color of white. We add purple striping,” said Hudson.
Before the 2012 school year, there were 24 designated stops for CAT-TRAN. This year, that number was lowered to 20.
“The number was reduced for several reasons,” said Hudson. “One, some stops were not physically safe. Two, some were not used very often or were too close to other stops. Three, efficiency. [It is] similar to what would occur in a neighborhood. School buses do not stop at each house. They have a central pickup point. The logic is the same.”
Students have also recently had trouble with the buses running late to their designated stops. The signs for designated CAT-TRAN stops say that buses will arrive every 15 minutes, but students report that buses cannot be found.
“To answer directly, I would need to know which bus, what day, what time,” said Hudson. “Generally there can be any number of reasons why a bus could run late: traffic, accidents, diversion of a bus to transport a person with disabilities, a road closure such as we had this week with Killian, weather, etc. There can be many reasons.
“Generally, the on-campus buses run about 10-12 minutes apart during the busiest portion of the day and less frequently at night,” added Hudson. “They all run the same route though. The HHS Express runs about 11 minutes apart during peak periods. The apartment shuttle has two routes of 30 minutes. We rely on specific feedback on scheduling issues so that we can pinpoint any problem.”
Among the numerous fees that students are charged during the beginning of the semester, one is a CAT-TRAN fee. This, like most other fees, has been raised this year. The 2012-2013 CAT-TRAN fee is $80, a $16 spike from last semester.
According to Hudson, the CAT-TRAN is operationally funded through the student transportation fee and that is the sole source of revenue for the CAT-TRAN service.
“State tax funds do not pay for either CAT-TRAN or Parking. State funds generally pay for teachers, classrooms, etc. CAT-TRAN is like any other university department. It pays for fuel, maintenance, drivers, replacement buses, insurance, repairs, etc.,” said Hudson.
With the rise in prices around the nation, everything at the University has gone up as well. For instance, with the recent spike in gas prices, the cost of running the buses goes up.
“As the 2012 budget closed out, we were at the breakeven point. As an average, a typical bus costs about $50 an hour to operate. So each bus costs $400 for an 8-hour operational day. The more buses, the more time on the road, the more expensive it is to operate,” said Hudson.
Western Carolina formerly used the Jackson County Transit (JCT) to shuttle students to and from the off campus apartments. With the new buses, WCU opted not to renew its contract with the Jackson County Transit.
According to Hudson, the contract cost was close to $70k per year and, with that, WCU was subject to the rules of their operations. Delays and cancellations were under the control of JCT.
“The recommendation to not renew the Jackson County contract was mine,” said Hudson. “As costs continue to rise to provide transportation services, efficiency has to be part of the business model we utilize. We receive lots of advice and requests on how we should expand services. More buses, more drivers, more routes, what we do not get from those advocates is how those additional services will be paid for.”
Hudson knows that the money students pay in transportation and/or parking fees is not unlimited and any expansion of services must be done within the financial means that they have at their disposal.
“[Student money] is given to us in trust. We have to be able to look students in the eye and be able to say that we are using those funds to the best of our ability with their best interests in mind,” said Hudson. “We are part of the whole educational process. As serious discussions take place regarding the affordability of a college education, we cannot simply raise fees to meet every desire that someone might have regarding transportation.”
Speaking of the Jackson County Transit, which shuttled off-campus riders, ridership for the off-campus apartments has been problematic from a financial perspective since its inception, according Hudson.
Hudson remarked that it all comes down to numbers. According to him, at its best ridership figures, each passenger cost between $4.50 and $5 per ride. Current figures are not positive. The current North Route costs about $9 per passenger and the South Route costs about $6.25 per passenger. Average number of riders for the North Route per day is 14. South Route is 49.
“The continuation of this particular service is questionable unless/until ridership increases. The figures above represent 20-27 percent of available seats on the bus. We need to be well over those figures for it to make sense economically to continue,” said Hudson.
By comparison the on-campus shuttle riders cost $1.34, HHS $1.83, and the Village Express is $.79. Overall, campus ridership is up 20 percent this year already primarily due to the HHS Express.
“We average a 5-7 percent increase in ridership each year. We have almost 300k riders each year. Our on-campus student population is right around 4k. That is a lot of rides per student,” said Hudson.
The CAT-TRAN services many students every day. It is invaluable to students’ daily lives and, as any good campus service, it grows as the university grows, evidenced by the new HHS Express.
However, like any university service, there is always room for improvement. Buses could have more stops, could be a bit quicker and look less plain. However, with the economy the way it is, CAT-TRAN does the best it can, like any department at Western Carolina, under the circumstances.
Now read our opinion on this story from Co-Editor-in-Chief Lex Menz:
Western Carolina University is usually unhelpful when it comes to parking, especially for commuter students.
In 2010, The Western Carolinian reported about the snow storm at the end of the fall semester and how uncooperative the University was in aiding commuter students getting to their final exams. Even though the roads were icy, slick and dangerous, Western Carolina continued to keep the university open forcing commuters to brave the tricky Highway 107 and surrounding routes to campus. The University was even caught in a lie when they posted on their official website, wcu.edu, that the majority of students lived on campus. However, after speaking with the Registrar’s Office, their numbers did not match those on the website. In fact, according to the Registrar’s Office, there were more students living off campus than there were in the residence halls.
Now, Western Carolina could hurt commuter students again. At the beginning of the current semester, WCU took over the off campus shuttle for commuter students after choosing not to renew their contract with Jackson County Transit. However, the route could be in danger of being canceled. Chief of Police Ernie Hudson told our News Editor in the article about the CAT-TRAN that seats are not being filled, which is a waste of money. “Average number of riders for the North Route per day is 14. South Route is 49,” reported Tyler Auffhammer.
“The continuation of this particular service is questionable unless/until ridership increases,” said Hudson.
What if numbers do not rise? Then, the off campus route will be shut down, but then what? Those 63 students are then forced to either walk along curvy roads usually with no sidewalks or try to play “Who-Can-Race-To-The-Parking-Space-The-Fastest” with the rest of the commuter students, who already play that game on a daily basis. Sixty-three more parking spaces will be filled, which is 63 parking spaces commuter students say do not exist because they are already having problems finding spaces as it is.
Hopefully, the route will stay, numbers will go up, and commuter students can breathe a sigh of relief. However, to do that, they will need to start riding the bus, which poses another problem. As rates at nearby apartment complexes continue to rise, students have begun to move into Sylva, Webster, Balsam and even Waynesville in order to afford living off campus. The off campus shuttle only travels within Cullowhee and only in the general area around the University. Maybe if the shuttle extended farther from campus, drivers would start to see fuller buses with new riders.