CATA’s Ridership Is Way Down, But Financially the Public Service Is Surviving Covid-19

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Alice Dreger for ELi

A CATA bus on Michigan State University's campus in May 2021.

If you’ve been noticing relatively empty CATA buses around town, the data matches what you’re seeing. According to numbers provided by CATA, in the fiscal year that fell before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ingham County area’s public transportation authority saw on average about 921,000 riders per month. Looking at stats for March of 2021 – one year into the pandemic –  ridership was down to about 240,000 for that month.

While the authority has experienced dramatically reduced revenue from ridership, it has successfully implemented a number of safety measures and even hired new employees. And financially, CATA is doing okay. That’s due to receiving substantial support through local and federal tax dollars. 

CATA’s fiscal year (FY) runs from October through September. In the fiscal year before the pandemic (Oct. 2018 – Sept. 2019), the system provided about 11 million rides. In the next year (Oct. 2019 – Sept. 2020), about half of which fell during the pandemic shut-downs, service provided was down to about 7.3 million rides.

According to CATA’s latest annual report, operating revenues dropped from about $14.3M in FY 2019 to $9.5M in FY 2020. At the same time, operating expenses shot up from about $62.3M to $66M. When total expenses are divided by total rides, the average cost per ride in FY 2019 came to $5.64 per ride, and in FY 2020, the average cost per ride had gone up to $9.03 per ride.

Lolo Robison, CATA’s chief marketing and public information officer, explained that despite the pandemic involving fewer bus routes, decreased ridership, and CATA not charging rider fees during a portion of the public health emergency, CATA’s financial status is not precarious. Robison said CATA’s finances were “very solid heading into the pandemic” and CATA has also been aided through actions taken by voters and the federal government. 

Voters in Lansing, East Lansing, and several Ingham County townships passed a millage renewal on March 10, 2020, to provide CATA almost $19 million in annual funding, or about 36% of its $53 million budget.

“Our voters did pass CATA’s millage by 72% of the total vote, and it was a very positive thing and then we immediately went into our pandemic response mode,” Robison said.

CATA has also been aided by the Federal Transit Administration, which provided awards to CATA of $18.3 million and $16.2 million. According to CATA’s annual report, passage of the federal American Rescue Plan of 2021 is providing CATA $26.25 million in grant funds.

One of the biggest impacts on CATA’s service in East Lansing has come from the temporary closure of routes on Michigan State University’s campus. When the University canceled almost all its fall 2020 in-person classes, MSU reduced their contract with CATA of on-campus routes from nine to four, with routes 32, 34, 35 and 36 continuing service. Although more students were back on campus in spring, this service level remained the same for spring 2021.

Robison said all the same locations on campus are serviced as before Covid-19. However, wait times at stations increased from 7-10 minutes to more like 30 minutes. 

“There was no need to redesign the route,” Robison said. “They already existed and traveled all of the campus locations to provide necessary levels of service and to transport students and faculty and staff to the buildings that are open.”

Jack Timothy Harrison for ELi

CATA maintained all its off-campus to on-campus routes, which includes routes 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, although service levels for route 26 are decreased. Monday-through-Friday wait times increased. Although on-campus routes at MSU are reduced, late-night service continued. The only entirely off-campus route suspended is route 16, the Grab & Go Express from downtown Lansing to Old Town Lansing. 

MSU Police Department Traffic Engineer Stephanie O’Donnell manages the University’s contract with CATA. She said the terms of MSU’s 2021 fall contract with CATA will be driven by the number of students living on campus and how many classes will regularly meet in-person in the fall.

The 2020 Annual Report indicates CATA has used grants to install barriers meant to stop disease spread in buses and work spaces, and also funded public education campaigns. Robison said these grants offset costs associated with Covid-19 and allowed CATA to provide personal protective equipment and sanitation resources. 

CATA has deployed its health and safety practices in conjunction with the Ingham County Health Department. 

“We had them come on our buses last year, and help us identify how we can safely operate an essential service for those who absolutely need to use CATA to get to where they need to go,” Robison said.

To keep employees safe during the pandemic, a number of CATA’s employees transitioned to working remotely. Robison, who also oversees customer experience, said CATA did not furlough or terminate any employees. The authority actually added temporary employees to assist with customer experience during Covid-19.

“It was a huge value I think that we were able to allow for them to come on board and they did a phenomenal job and we ended up hiring three of them,” Robison said. 

During the pandemic, CATA also played a role in transporting people to vaccination sites throughout Ingham County, including to the MSU Pavilion, a major distribution center for the region. 

“I’m very proud of our workforce,” Robison concluded about the system’s pandemic response. “I think we all are here doing what we should be doing, and at the same time keeping all of our riders and our employees and the public as safe as we possibly can.”

You can find CATA’s latest annual report here.

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