While standing outside in the blustering wind, snow, and frigid temperatures, the sight of a CATA bus approaching in the distance brings a sense of relief and joy.
For many individuals however, this sentiment is overshadowed by the uncertainty of whether they will be able to board the bus, or be forced to endure unpleasant weather conditions.
The overcrowding on CATA buses has become a main topic of discussion among MSU students since the beginning of second semester. MSU student Neha Rao is unsatisfied with CATA’s timeliness and ability to provide enough space on their vehicles.
“The buses have to run on time because we depend on them,” Rao said.
Rao said she wishes CATA would fix the problem by putting more buses on the particular routes that are known to be most crowded, specifically Routes 31 and 26.
According to an email from CATA’s in-house experts, ridership on Route 31 has significantly increased this semester by 18,854 trips, while ridership on Route 26 has actually decreased by 40,887 trips.
Despite this decrease, Route 26, to Abbot/Chandler, is still among the three on campus that frequently operates with “standing room only,” according to Assistant Executive Director Debbie Alexander.
The other two campus routes that share this problem are Routes 20 and 23, Alexander said.
In response to a number of recent complaints that suggest similar solutions to the overcrowding, CATA Director of Marketing Laurie Robison said this is not an issue where buses can simply be added.
“Public transportation isn’t free,” Robison said.
She said extra fees needed to accommodate such an increase in demand for buses would directly impact the taxpayers who fund public transportation.
“Based on the dollars we have to work with, we try to provide affordability and convenience,” she said.
According to in-house experts, CATA’s budget for 2014 has increased by almost four percent and currently stands at $42.6 million.
In addition to limits set by the funding of their budget, Robison said CATA only has so many vehicles they can allocate to MSU, which prevents them from making any changes to campus routes.
CATA experts said in an email that 22 buses are allocated to the system’s 30-plus routes during peak hours. Out of these 30-plus routes, 20 of them provide transportation to MSU students.
MSU freshman Whitney Tompkins shares a negative sentiment for CATA’s services during the winter months.
In addition to tuition costs, Tompkins said it is unfair that students must purchase a $50 bus pass for a service that is not always dependable.
Robison said students must take into account that public transportation is a very complex system because of the way it is funded.
Property tax revenue, state-operating assistance, and fares are among the many sources that contribute to CATA’s revenue, said CATA in-house experts.
Kenneth Boyer, MSU economics professor and expert in public transportation funding, said if transportation systems were “money-making enterprises,” students who are frustrated with having to pay for a bus pass have a valid point.
“Public transportation is funded by the community as a whole,” Boyer said. “They [the students] can’t really complain because they don’t pay the cost.”
He said both property owners in East Lansing and the university pay for the majority of public transportation costs, and students only contribute a small part of this funding through bus passes.
“It’s a wonder that students have any public transportation at all,” Boyer said.
Rao said overcrowding is still as prominent as it was when she was a freshman three years ago.
“You kind of have to reroute yourself,” Rao said. “You have to spend a whole hour getting to class when it’s only a few minutes away.”
Robison said although it is not always possible to provide students with quick service during certain “peak hours,” CATA utilizes all of their resources in an attempt to help with the increased demand.
“CATA has, at its own cost, put more buses on the roads at peak hours to accommodate the demand,” Robison said.
Despite such efforts, Robison said more vehicles on the road have the potential to cause further delays by contributing to additional traffic and back-ups.
In an email, CATA experts said the transportation system has vehicles they refer to as “hold” buses, which are utilized when capacity or service issues occur. In addition, the buses exist as a result of CATA’s revenue, but they are not used very frequently.
Robison said CATA also allocates their longest vehicles to campus because of the volume of students who depend on their services.
CATA experts said its longest vehicles are the 60-foot buses, which can hold about 100 people when passengers are both seated and standing.
In addition to her frustrations about paying for a bus pass, Tompkins said CATA should not claim that the buses run every five to 10 minutes when they are not really arriving at those intervals.
Robison said delays are inevitable because CATA has to deal with traffic and other accidents caused by bad weather throughout East Lansing.
“This trend of overcrowding is typical every year, specifically at the start of every new semester on campus,” Robison said.
Robison said she understands that people get frustrated, but it is ultimately up to the students to give themselves extra time to get from class to class.
“Public transportation is not designed to be perfect,” Robison said. “Students should try to accommodate their movements to the best of their abilities.”
Boyer said although individuals assume buying a bus pass will give them access to the service whenever they need it, this is not always the case.
He said all public transportation systems face difficulties because they have a fixed number of buses that vary in size, and these resources do not always accommodate the fluctuations in demand that occur during the winter.
“I have sympathies on both sides,” Boyer said. “It’s not clear cut either way.”