What seemed like a good idea in theory — a free shuttle service for students living off campus — is just not popular. Low ridership numbers and rising costs have plagued the program and caused university transportation officials to ask the question: is it worth it?
No changes are planned for the upcoming school year. But WCU Police Chief Ernie Hudson, who also oversees Cat-Tran, said he will most likely propose cutting the program the following year if ridership doesn’t pick up.
Cat-Tran has two components. One is on-campus shuttle that gives students rides between WCU lecture halls, dorms, labs and other facilities. The other is an off-campus shuttle between main apartments and campus.
The off-campus shuttle runs a north and a south loop. In 2012, the Cat-Tran shuttles carried about 365,000 passengers. Of those, just more than 4,000 rode the off-campus routes.
“You’re sending a bus up a road to a particular place eight times a day and only getting a few passengers” Hudson said. “Some buses were actually coming back empty.”
The Cat-Tran program is funded through student transportation fees. For the upcoming school year, each student will pay a $96 fee that will go toward funding the shuttle services and other transportation programs through WCU. Of the more than $800,000 in fees collected, the off-campus shuttle consumes about 10 percent of the funds but comes nowhere near providing 10 percent of riders services.
Hudson doesn’t think it’s necessarily fair to have all the students subsidizing a program that is expensive and getting little to no use. Roughly speaking, providing a ride to the on-campus crowd costs about $1. Providing a ride to an off-campus rider costs about $20.
“I am a steward of these student fees, so the students expect me to spend their money wisely and to get the most out of every dollar,” Hudson said. “It’s cheaper to run a limo.”
He said the buses running off-campus routes would be better utilized running on-campus routes and making that service faster and more convenient. Moreover, running bus routes that return without any passengers somewhat defeats the energy-saving purposes of public transit.
Furthermore, most juniors and seniors living off-campus have their own vehicles, Hudson said. And reducing the off-campus routes may only exacerbate the situation. Once the frequency of the shuttle goes beyond every 30 minutes, Hudson believes even fewer students will use it.
“You’re 20 years old; you’re living in an apartment four blocks from campus, and you have a car sitting out there,” Hudson said. “Are you going to stand out there for 30 minutes?”
He doesn’t seem to think so, and the ridership statistics support his claim. So does WCU junior Savannah Hopper. Despite living in the University Suites Apartments with an off-campus Cat-Tran stop at her front door, Hopper drives the half-mile to campus everyday.
“The Cat-Tran doesn’t come at all when I need it,” Hopper said.
The cost of a parking pass on campus for the year is $96.