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CATA Looks for Change Amid Ridership and Revenue Downturn Caused by Pandemic

With ridership still down because of the pandemic, the Centre Area Transportation Authority is proposing a number of service changes to go into effect this fall.

During a public hearing on Tuesday, the transit system explained the changes and heard from the public as it moves to finalize the changes.

“CATA has always been very proud that we brought in a lot of our own money,” said Kimberly Fragola, CATA assistant executive director of operations. “It is very typical that transit systems only bring in 15 to 20 percent of their own funding and the rest comes from state and federal sources. Prior to the pandemic, CATA was bringing in 46 percent of our own money. That has allowed us to grow the system and serve more people. … As with a lot of things during the pandemic, there has been a contraction of ridership, etc., going on.”

The system has recovered only to about 12% of its pre-pandemic ridership levels, “so that is extremely low,” Fragola said. “Similarly, the money that we bring in ourselves is only at about 10 percent. So we are struggling and I am only offering that as some of the reasoning. We are reducing some service in areas, changing it in others, but this is the context for that. We are really just trying to look at the long-term survival of the agency.”

Fragola said that while the system has received some stimulus money, it has not been enough to overcome the losses.

“Our operating budget every year is about $20 million,” Fragola said. “We did receive stimulus money of about $20-plus million. What that has allowed us to do is keep the doors open this year and it is going to help us get through the coming years. The predictions for the transit industry is that ridership won’t return to normal for maybe three or four years. So, we are trying to weather that storm until things are normal again.”

If adopted, the proposed changes would go into effect on Aug. 21.

The changes would include a reduction of service hours with CATA no longer operating after 12:30 a.m. any day of the week. The plan does include bringing back Sunday service in some form.

“There will be some adjustment to the frequency, but we figure some level of Sunday service is obviously better than none,” said Chris Jordan, CATA director of service planning.

There would no longer be service on Labor Day and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, with the exception of the CATARIDE service, which would provide only life-sustaining trips.

“We are trying to make adjustments that hopefully affect the least amount of people and can save us some money,” said Jordan.

The A (Park Forest Village), F (Pine Grove Mills), G (Gray’s Woods) and S (Science Park) routes all were originally proposed to be temporarily discontinued through the fall, but after hearing from the public, CATA decided to reinstate the A route with a slight reduction in service, said Jordan. The F, G and S routes will remain on hold due to low ridership during the pandemic.

“Even prior to the pandemic, these were the three routes that were less productive than the others,” Jordan said.

Under the proposal, the B (Boalsburg), C (Houserville), XB (Bellefonte) and XG (Pleasant Gap) routes — all of which currently are temporarily discontinued — would be eliminated.

Bus service traditionally provided by the B route and a portion of the P (Tussey Mountain) route in Boalsburg would now be provided by the on-demand CATAGO microtransit service, which would connect with the P route in Scenery Park and provide service to the Medical Sciences Building and Mount Nittany Medical Center.

“It gives more service to the Boalsburg area, rather than what our bus route used to be doing. Given the success we have seen in Bellefonte, we believe this here will be an added benefit to Boalsburg and even some of the businesses in Boalsburg, such as we have seen in Bellefonte,” said Derek Sherman, assistant ADA and on-demand operations manager.

Harris Township supervisors are “very concerned” about the impact the Boalsburg area service changes would have, Township Manager Amy Farkas said in an email.

“As the fastest growing municipality in Centre County for the last seven years, they are really upset that CATA thinks cutting most of the services to our municipality is a viable option,” Farkas said.

Supervisors have invited CATA representatives to discuss the issue during the board’s meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Monday at the Boalsburg Fire Hall.

Farkas said the township has offered counterproposals, including extending CATAGO to the bus stop on Allen Street and College Avenue.

“Microtransit is a great concept, but without a service extension that would pick up the grocery stores, medical facilities and a transfer point in downtown State College, it likely doesn’t make a lot of sense for Harris Township,” she said.

CATARide would remain only within three-quarters of a mile of a bus route, with service eliminated to Bellefonte, Pleasant Gap and Boalsburg. Paratransit service may be available through other agencies in these areas.

The loss of CATARide is another concern, Farkas said, as many township residents rely on the service. CATA has offered to grandfather in existing CATARide users for a year, but would take no new customers.

Under CATA’s proposed changes, the P Route, which currently serves a portion of the Boalsburg area would end at Scenery Park and service would end earlier, at 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

“The counter proposal was to keep that service for a year, though in a smaller capacity,” Farkas said. “We aren’t interested in stop gap measures, we are interested in solutions that will preserve service for the residents in our community who rely on the bus or on CATA Ride.”

Harris Township is one of five CATA member municipalities and contributes a local match share to the authority’s budget. For 2020-21, Harris Township’s cost was $31,585. In CATA’s draft 2021-22 budget, it would be $33,164.

Farkas said “everything is on the table,” including switching to contract municipality status. Benner and Spring townships and Bellefonte are municipalities that have contracts with CATA, ranging from $5,600 this year for Benner to $27,500 for Spring.

“We support public transit and want to find a way to make this work for our residents,” Farkas said. “CATA has to be willing to work with us to find a fair and equitable solution.”

In other aspects of the proposal, CATAGO would continue on a pilot basis to service the Bellefonte and Pleasant Gap communities with modification in destination points outside the zone. Those traveling from the Bellefonte and Pleasant Gap areas would need to schedule a CATAGO trip to the Rutter’s area — specific stops to be determined — and transfer to a new pilot commuter express route that would operate from there to campus on Curtin Road at the Stadium West parking lot stop.

Alternatively, riders may travel via CATAGO to Walmart where they would transfer to the HM route to travel to campus.

The A (Park Forest Village), F (Pine Grove Mills), G (Gray’s Woods) and S (Science Park) routes would remain temporarily discontinued through the fall.

A full list of proposed changes is available at catabus.com/proposed-fall-service. CATA is still accepting public feedback concerning the changes.

StateCollege.com’s Geoff Rushton contributed reporting on Harris Township to this story.