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CDTA sees ridership decline

CDTA sees ridership decline

Transition to Navigator card part of the reason
CDTA sees ridership decline
A passenger boards a CDTA bus in downtown Schenectady in March.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

ALBANY — Fewer people are taking the bus these days.

The Capital District Transportation Authority has seen a consistent decline in ridership since January, by an average of about 5 percent from a year ago.

Part of the reason may be the transition to a smart card technology called Navigator for all riders who prepay, authority officials said. A national trend in which fewer people are riding mass transit buses also may be a factor.

"Some of this is due to the Navigator transition, some is the impact of ride-sharing, and some is a simple slowdown from record levels of 2-3 years ago, which were not sustainable long-term," CDTA CEO Carm Basile said in a report at Wednesday's CDTA board meeting.

For June, the bus system for Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties carried 1.21 million riders, which was 5 percent fewer people than a year earlier. Ridership has been down consistently since January, with drops of as much as 9 percent in some months. It was down 5 percent in May.

CDTA saw record ridership in 2014-15 and 2015-16, with boardings topping 17.1 million. This is the first significant decline since then.

"We were at a record high, and we knew that wasn't sustainable," CDTA spokeswoman Jaime Watson said.

When it adopted the new Navigator technology, CDTA phased out its old paper fare cards, which were sold both as ride packages or with unlimited use — usually for 30 days. Navigator cards are personalized and have no fixed value, unlike the previous cards. They instead require customers to create an account and put money on the cards as their value depletes.

"We're optimistic. We're getting the wrinkles knocked out of Navigator," Watson said following the board meeting in Albany.

Authority officials have said severe weather this winter may have hurt ridership over the winter months, and that the availability of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft may also have cut into ridership.

Basile has said the decline may also reflect a national trend of fewer people riding transit buses. In 2017, 31 of the 35 largest transit systems in the country lost ridership, the Washington Post reported in March.

"Some of the factors contributing to the ridership decline, such as low gasoline prices and service problems at particular transit systems, may be transitory, but others, such as the growing popularity of telework and the rise of ridesourcing companies such as Uber and Lyft, may be longer lasting," according to a March report by the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C.

The drops in CDTA ridership are in its core inter-city bus business. By contrast, the Northway Xpress, a commuter bus system operated by a contractor that runs up and down the Northway between Saratoga County and downtown Albany, has seen 5 percent growth so far this year.

Also at Wednesday's meeting, the CDTA board discussed the prospects of adding electric buses to its fleet, which now includes diesel-powered and hybrid diesel-electric buses.

There are about 300 electric mass-transit buses in operation nationally. The Rochester Transit System is planning an upstate pilot program.

Basile said an initial evaluation showed that major capital improvements would need to be made at CDTA's main garage in Albany before it could accommodate electric-vehicle charging stations, but the authority plans to keep exploring the idea.

"We have some significant work that needs to be done to upgrade the building," Basile said.

Board member Mark Schaeffer of Albany encouraged staff to keep pursuing the concept.

"There may be only 300 [in the U.S.] but there are 300,000 electric buses globally," he said. "The technology is improving dramatically."

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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