Tuesday, May 21, 2024

CATA: 50 Years of Connecting the Centre Region

Whether you went to Penn State as a student, visit State College for big events, or proudly call yourself a local, CATA’s reddish-orange and white buses have likely been a big part of your Happy Valley experience. Since 1974, the Centre Area Transportation Authority has offered safe late-night rides for students, provided essential transportation for people without vehicles, and linked townships to create quick, clean, connections to get people where they need to go.

In honor of the transit authority’s fiftieth anniversary of serving the Centre Region, here are five things you may not know about CATA:

Saving thousands of metric tons of CO2 each year

In 1994, CATA decided to move to compressed natural gas vehicles, and by 2004, 100 percent of its fleet was powered by natural gas—the first transit system to do so on the East Coast. 

The environmental impact of that decision was immense, current CEO David Rishel says. “The Environmental Protection Agency reports that a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year, so for every person who rides CATA rather than driving their car, we are helping to save the environment. CATA gave close to five million trips this year.”

Beyond reducing pollution, Rishel says, the buses are reducing another kind of congestion as well. “Because CATA is transporting so many people, there is less traffic on the roads than there would be otherwise. Without CATA, every day would be like a home football game.”

Nationally recognized for advancements

In addition to its revolutionary environmental impact, CATA’s transportation model has gained recognition around the country. In 2001, it was awarded Outstanding Transit System by the American Public Transportation Association for being a role model of excellence, leadership, and innovation, with accomplishments that have greatly advanced public transportation.

“We had a strong team that accomplished a lot,” says Hugh Mose, former general manager of CATA. Mose led the transit authority from 1995 to 2014 and credits “a great board of directors, terrific staff, and wonderful community support” that has helped CATA advance over the past five decades. He said it was through collaboration with federal, state, and local partners, municipalities, and Penn State that CATA became known as a premier small transit system in the U.S. 

Hugh Mose, former CATA general manager (Photo by Tyler Daniel Design LLC)

“We had a team that was very willing for CATA to be all that it could be,” he says. “It has been able to accomplish a lot.”

CATA has continued to win awards and recognition over the years: its CATACommute program has received the Governor’s Award for Local Excellence, the authority has received a Workplace Leaders in Financial Education Award from the American Institute of Public Accounts and the Society of Human Resources Management, and on April 9, 2012, Mose and Human Resources Manager Julie Hartley participated in the opening of the New York Stock Exchange Opening Bell Ceremony.

First-of-its-kind innovations

In 2000, CATA was the first transit system in the state to install bike racks on its buses, just months after assuming operation of all Penn State transit and converting Town and Campus Loop routes into a free service. 

In 2006, CATA partnered with Avail Technologies to roll out smart technology, which today encompasses real-time information on its website and phone apps, as well as major mobility centers, along with audible and visual stop annunciators and automated passenger counters. 

“It’s fun and important that so many young people use our service because they force us to stay at the cutting edge of technology,” Rishel says. “They aren’t reading timetables or schedules—they are just looking at their apps to see when the next bus will arrive. And that’s how the customers of tomorrow will look at transportation. That keeps us on our toes.”

Essential links between town and gown

“In the years after World War II, real estate development decisions were made with the assumptions that everyone would be driving cars,” Mose says. “It made transportation difficult for people who didn’t—or couldn’t—drive.” 

During his tenure and in the decade since, massive strides have been made to connect the university, the Borough of State College, and the Centre Region’s townships. The Campus Loop program seamlessly connected the campus to downtown. CATAGo! offers on-demand microtransit to Bellefonte, Boalsburg, and Pleasant Gap. CATACommute offers vanpool service for commuters in the greater State College area. And CATARide offers origin-to-destination transport to riders over sixty-five or people with disabilities. 

Connecting people with people

On January 7, 2004, a blinding snowstorm on Interstate 80 in Boggs Township caused a massive pileup of fifty vehicles, with at least four deaths and seventeen injuries reported at the scene. During the freezing aftermath, CATA was there to help. 

The Centre Daily Times reported, “In an unprecedented move Tuesday, [CATA] dispatched three buses manned by volunteer company drivers—three of whom stayed at the site for 19 hours. The vehicles ended up serving primarily as shelters where rescue workers could thaw out, grab a bite or sleep.”

“As a public entity, one of the reasons we exist is to serve the public,” Mose said at the time. “It’s rare that there’s a more important need than a catastrophic emergency.”

Rishel says one of the best things about CATA is its inherent culture of caring. “It’s so customer-oriented,” he says. “Our operators, employees, and contractors genuinely care about providing the best service to our passengers.” 

Last year, he says, the transit authority received a letter from a student who said she had been having a rough time at school. 

“She had been having a lot of difficulty that semester and was really quiet about it. She shared that one of the only things that got her through was her bus driver. Every day, he was friendly and positive and warm. She said that had made such a difference in her life. It made me choke up a little bit, just thinking about how that person had made such an impact without knowing it.”

Rishel says CATA is a perfect fit for a community that “is easy to care about.”

“Centre County is a very cohesive community that is oriented to providing a good life and life services for the residents. CATA’s network embodies that.”

He says that CATA is poised to connect the area even more in the years to come. 

“One of our most recent innovations has been with microtransit, offering on-demand rides that enable us to reach previously unserved areas. We’re building a network of services that connect with the CATABus services and CATARide services for senior citizens and riders with disabilities, … tying them all together so there is a single network. That’s what we are working toward—one big seamless system where everyone in the Centre Region has some level of mobility.” 

CATA invites the public to attend its 50th anniversary celebration on May 20 from 3 to 7 p.m. at 2081 West Whitehall Road, State College.

Half a Century … and Counting

1946—Local bus service starts with the Nittany Transit Company.

1972—Centre Area Transit formed to subsidize public transit.

1974—Centre Area Transportation Authority incorporated.

1975—CATA transportation officially begins. During the first year, ridership was 201,000. 

1982—CATA reorganized to become a joint municipal authority for Borough of State College and College, Ferguson, Harris, and Patton townships. 

1989—CATA implements the Town Loop to complement the existing Campus Loop and adds Park-and-Ride program. 

1990—Annual ridership grows to over two million. 

1991—CATA opens the doors to a new facility on Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township. 

1994—CATA commits to alternative fuels and makes plans to purchase sixteen compressed natural gas buses and construct a fueling facility. 

1999—CATA assumes operation of all transit service on the Penn State campus, converting the Town and Campus Loops to free service. Ridership exceeds six million. 

2000—Bike racks installed on the front of all CATA buses, the first transit authority in Pennsylvania to do so. 

2001—CATA named American Public Transportation Association’s Outstanding Transit System in North America. Renovations double the size of the authority’s operations and administration facility. 

2004—Addition of eight more CNG buses makes CATA one of the first transit systems on the East Coast to have a 100% CNG-powered active bus fleet. 

2006—Advanced Public Transportation Systems program begins, integrating smart bus technologies like a real-time website, and iPhone and Android real-time schedule applications. 

2007—CATA assumes Penn State’s vanpool program, now referred to as CATACommute.

2009—Rebranding to reflect its array of transportation services, CATA unveils CATABus, CATARide, and CATACommute.CATA’s ridership exceeds seven million for the first time. The CATACommute program receives the Governor’s Award for Local Excellence. 

2011—CATA receives a Workplace Leaders in Financial Education Award from the American Institute of Public Accounts and the Society of Human Resources Management.

2012—With a fleet of 28 new CNG buses, CATA retires its Orion and LYNX buses. CATA receives a $12.3 million grant, the largest in its history and one of the largest awarded nationwide. This grant, coupled with $20 million in state funding, makes a facility expansion project possible

2014—Groundbreaking ceremony for CATA’s $42 million facility expansion project.

2015—Board Chairman John C. Spychalski is named the 2015 Outstanding Public Transportation Board Member by APTA. 

2017—CATA develops business relationships throughout the State College community with the CATA Apartment Pass Program.

2018—The expansion project was dedicated to and named the John C. Spychalski Administration and Maintenance building, in honor of his board service since 1980 and chairmanship since 2001. 

2020—First five New Flyer 60-foot CNG-powered articulated buses arrive at CATA, bringing CATA’s fleet of fixed-route buses to 85. COVID-19 restrictions cause a ninety-seven-percent drop in ridership. Reduced service focuses on transportation for essential workers and those in the community who have no other transportation to life-sustaining services. In July, Penn State announces that about half its fall classes will have an in-person component, and CATA’s entire operator workforce is recalled in August in preparation for the return to full service. 

2021—CATAGo! microtransit expands to Boalsburg, Park Forest, and Pine Grove Mills after being introduced in Bellefonte in 2020. CATA is the second transit agency in Pennsylvania to start microtransit. T&G

Cara Aungst is a freelance writer living in Belleville. She loves to tell stories about how central Pennsylvania people and ideas change the world.