The new director of Charlottesville Area Transit is ready to get behind the wheel of a bus system that could see big changes in 2013.
“No transit system is without its challenges, and I think CAT represents some challenges that I’m up for at this point in my career,” said John E. Jones, who will take over as CAT manager Feb. 25.
Jones, who resigned his position last week as director of the Summit Stage Transit in Breckenridge, Colo., has over 36 years of experience in public and pupil transit. Before working for Summit Stage, he was transit director of Medina County Public Transit in Ohio.
“We are excited to have Mr. Jones as our new transit manager,” Judy Mueller, the city’s public works director, said in a statement. “His involvement in managing operating budgets, fleet contracts, developing and writing operating and capital grants, and implementing transit technology systems aligns with Charlottesville Area Transit’s missions and objectives.”
Jones, 54, will replace Bill Watterson, who left in February 2012 to run the bus system in Burlington, Vt. In the interim, city facilities director Lance Stewart has played double-duty by also overseeing CAT’s 94 part-time and full-time employees.
“I’ve got a lot to get done before John arrives,” Stewart said in an email. “And I expect to spend a good bit of time with him in the weeks after he is on site.”
Jones will make $105,000 a year in his new position, an increase from the nearly $98,000 he makes in Summit County. Summit Stage has an annual budget of $8.48 million, compared with an operating budget of $6.5 million at CAT.
However, Summit Stage was $300,000 over budget at the end of 2012, according to the Summit Daily News.
Jones said the shortfall is related to a dropoff in revenues due to the recession. Fewer people have been visiting ski resorts, and Summit Stage Transit is funded by the county’s sales tax revenues.
“We had also a spike in fuel prices that didn’t help us,” Jones added. “The union negotiated a wage increase despite the recession.”
The Summit Stage transit system began as a ski bus service in 1977. Over the past 20 years, annual ridership has increased from 432,000 to 1.75 million.
Jones will join a transit system that has seen ridership grow over the last few years.
“In fiscal year 2012, we saw an 11.19 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, totaling 2,570,920 rides provided,” Stewart said. “As a point of comparison, in FY 2007, we provided 1,512,049 rides.”
However, Stewart said ridership will decline this year because of the closure of the McCormick Rd bridge, which connects the eastern and western sides of the University of Virginia. Stewart said that has corresponded to a 23 percent decline in ridership on the free “trolley”-style bus.
Jones said his initial view of CAT is that many routes are circuitous, and others are underutilized. Those observations echo ones made by consultants with the firm Nelson Nygaard, which was hired by the city to study the existing system. A final set of recommendations will be presented to the City Council in March.
“This is not the first time I’ve come in to a job during the middle of a study,” Jones said. “At other times, I’ve either been handed a study or come into a system where a study had been done or nearly complete and took it over.”
Jones said three studies have been conducted while he has worked for Summit Stage Transit.
When he was transit director in Medina County, Ohio, he helped the system transition from an on-demand system to a set of fixed routes.
“I get out and ride the buses and talk to people,” Jones said. “That’s the best way to find out information about a bus system.”
Unlike a lot of transit system managers, Jones still holds a commercial driver’s license and occasionally gets behind the wheel of a bus.
“That’s another excellent way to find out how routes are going,” Jones said.
Jones said one goal of his tenure in Charlottesville will be to increase the number of “choice” riders, meaning people who have cars but choose to take transit.
“We’ll be reaching out to find the preferred alternatives we feel will not hurt our ridership base,” Jones said. “We want to encourage people to get on the bus.”