With federal funding for the Enterprise South bus service coming to an end next year, the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority is looking to community members, elected officials and riders to determine if the line has a future.
The route, which takes passengers from downtown, East Ridge and the Northgate Mall area to Enterprise South industrial park, is currently funded by a $1.7 million Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant that has allowed CARTA to test new services, as well as $433,000 provided by the Chattanooga City Council. The three-year grant was acquired in August 2015 and will expire in August 2018.
The line runs in the mornings and evenings Monday through Friday to accommodate various shift changes at most of the companies in the industrial park, including Volkswagen and Amazon, two of the largest employers in the area with more than 2,000 full-time employees each, according to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. A Saturday service was also added to the downtown route.
Though CARTA Director Lisa Maragnano said she'd hoped for higher ridership, the route's passenger count has been steadily increasing each month. In March 2016, for example, 440 people rode the shuttle. By March 2017, that number had increased to 1,900, with an average of 82 passengers a day.
Many of those riders have been Enterprise South employees with no access to transportation of their own or those who were looking to avoid parking issues in the industrial district, Maragnano said, and reports have indicated that the service would only become more valuable to these employees with time.
Employment in the Enterprise South area is projected to grow from 7,700 to 13,200 by 2040, according to a 2016 study by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency. Employment numbers have already risen at Volkswagen since the company selected Chattanooga's VW plant to produce the Atlas SUV, which began production late last year, and last week VW officials announced that a second, smaller SUV would also be produced at the plant.
The RPA has recommended new bus routes and more frequent trips to the Enterprise South area to accommodate the coming growth, in addition to road widening and other multi-modal transportation options. The deciding factor in whether such options can become reality is funding, Maragnano said.
As it stands, CARTA officials may consider preserving portions of Enterprise South's downtown route with reduced trips if they can afford to fit costs within their operating budget, she said, but without resident feedback, the Eastgate/East Ridge and Northgate routes could soon be discontinued, much like the largely unused Ooltewah route that was initially part of the pilot service.
"People need to ride if they want to keep the service," Maragnano said. "That's what the key is. People need to take advantage of what's out there, and I just don't think that they do that enough."
CARTA has begun a series of public input meetings with residents in the affected areas, starting with East Ridge, to determine what services they would like to see and whether elected officials would be willing to help fund them. That feedback could lead to expanding the current Enterprise South routes, keeping it the same or making changes, Maragnano said.
Though targeted at potential bus riders, the topic is one that could affect all commuters, said Jonathan Gibbons, GreenTrips coordinator for the RPA. In addition to the negative environmental impact of having more cars on the road, a lack of public transportation could mean more traffic congestion as more cars struggle to move in and out of a single area at peak times, he said.
"When everybody is surrounding themselves with empty car seats by driving alone, that's not a very efficient way to move people in and out of a specific area," Gibbons said.
Maragnano encouraged anyone with a desire to preserve the Enterprise South routes to contact CARTA and their elected officials to let them know they'd like the service to continue.