Chattanooga's public transit system got a whole lot greener.
Last year, the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority got two new 35-foot hybrid electric buses powered by clean-diesel and electric motors. The buses cost about $500,000 each, compared to $300,000 for a traditional diesel-powered bus, CARTA officials said.
"It will be our bus of the future," said Tom Dugan, executive director of CARTA. "It's a natural progression to be greener."
He said the hybrid buses mark a continuation of green policies, first started in 1992 with the purchase of the electric shuttles.
CARTA also received $650,000 in federal money for more energy-efficient lighting at parking garages and other buildings.
That money was part of $9 million in grant money the agency took in last year. About $5 million of that is federal stimulus money, officials said.
The grant money is paying for a variety of projects, including bus replacements, maintenance, rehabilitation of park-and-ride areas and maintaining the Incline Railway, Mr. Dugan said.
But while the grant money allowed CARTA to make some improvements, fewer Chattanoogans rode the bus.
Ridership for fixed-route buses decreased 5.9 percent in 2009 from the previous year, and most of it was due to job losses throughout the city, Mr. Dugan said.
"There's no question; it is the economy," he said.
For almost every year since 2004, CARTA has seen a gradual increase in ridership. Mr. Dugan said more drivers report that fewer passengers are boarding at manufacturing facilities.
That can translate to other losses as well, he said. If someone does not have a job, he or she may not use the bus to buy groceries or go shopping, Mr. Dugan said.
"That's three lost trips from one rider right there," he said.
But the downtown electric shuttle, a free service, has not seen any decrease, he said. The CARTA's Careavan service for the elderly and disabled has also seen a 16 percent spike, he said.
This could be a bad year as well for fixed-route ridership as the economy tries to get back on track, Mr. Dugan said.
But for some riders, the service is still a bargain.
Patrellia Lightbourne, a Bahamas resident, said she is thinking of moving to Chattanooga. Riding the free shuttle, she said it was better than in her homeland where bus companies were privately owned and unreliable.
"It's not as scheduled," she said of Bahamas bus service.
Carll Cole, a TVA employee, said he rides the shuttle downtown to eat lunch at least three times a week. He knows of people at his job who ride the shuttle to work.
"I love it," he said. "I think it's an asset. And I love that it is electric too."