KINGSPORT - Ridership on the Kingsport Area Transit System was down for 2006, and according to one transit official, ridership may have reached a "plateau" and changes could be in store for the nearly 12-year-old program.
Gary Taylor, transit director for Kingsport, gave an update on KATS to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen last week saying ridership dropped from 2005 to 2006. In addition, ridership in February dropped by more than 300 from the previous year, from 9,375 to 9,021.
Taylor attributes the drop in ridership to two possibilities: sewer work along Dale Street, which prevented people from being picked up; and KATS not doing charter rides for the past two years, which normally amounted to 80 to 100 people a month.
"I think we just go through spells," Taylor said. "I do think we have maybe hit a plateau of what our ridership is, and we might need to re-evaluate and make some changes."
Started in 1995, KATS operates four bus routes Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Two buses service the eastern side of Kingsport, one bus handles the western end of town, and the fourth bus works the middle part of the Model City. KATS also operates four to five para-transit buses during the week.
KATS' yearly budget is approximately $1.2 million - 50 percent is funded by the federal government, 25 percent by the state and 25 percent by Kingsport. Taylor said KATS generates $100,000 a year in revenue - $45,000 from the RCAT lease, with the remainder coming from fares and contracts.
The service still charges the same amount it did when it started in 1995 - 50 cents for a normal trip and $1 for para-transit service.
According to figures released by KATS, ridership has gradually increased over the past 10 years, going from 32,000 riders in 1996 to 120,551 in 2005. Over the past 10 years there was one spike in ridership - in 2001 by more than 22,000 people - and two declines (in 1999 by 75 people and in 2006, when ridership dropped to 118,871).
Taylor said the spike in 2001 was due to KATS adding two routes to its operations.
Because of this decline in ridership, Taylor said he plans to ask the Tennessee Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study and route analysis for Kingsport and re-evaluate how and where KATS is operating its route service and offer recommendations for change.
"We had consistent growth for 10 years, and you sort of expect that, and we expected it to continue. But I think you do reach a pinnacle position, and maybe we need to evaluate, go back in and change our hours of service," Taylor said. "Maybe we don't need to run 11 hours a day. Maybe go from four routes, 11 hours a day, to five routes, eight hours a day, and put service to a different area."
Another possibility could be the elimination of route service altogether and going to a next-day service.
"People would call in for service the next day," Taylor said. "It increases your staff time, but it makes you more efficient. You're not running buses just to attract traffic."
Even though the cost of gas has risen over recent years, ridership still dropped from 2005 to 2006. Taylor believes the cost of gas has not gone up enough to get people out of cars and onto buses.
"I think you're going to have to see the prices get up, $3.50 or $4 a gallon before you actually see the public become interested in doing it," Taylor said. "I don't think we've reached the point where low income and government housing people are going to want to park their vehicle because gas is $2.60 a gallon. I think they're still able to get out and do what they want to do."