After 20 years, Collier Area Transit continues 'to address community needs'
Only five buses made up Collier Area Transit’s fleet when the transportation system first roared onto county roads in 2001.
In its first year, CAT netted a ridership of 97,500, barely under the system’s 100,000 goal, said Michelle Arnold, director of Collier's public transit and neighborhood enhancement division.
The fledgling transit system didn’t operate seven days a week when it first started, like it does today, Arnold said.
CAT celebrated 20 years of service in February. Much has changed for the transit system since 2001, but it continues to provide a service and works to meet the needs of the community, those connected to CAT told the Daily News.
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CAT today operates 19 fixed routes on nearly all major roadways in Collier County and provides paratransit services, Arnold said. The system operates nearly 30 buses, according to the system’s transit development plan.
CAT's capital and operating budget was $8.1 million in 2001, according to the transit system. The CAT budget for fiscal 2021 is $12.7 million.
Ridership in 2013 reached more than 1 million passenger trips, according to the CAT transit development plan.
Passenger trips have declined in the years since the end of the Great Recession, and the coronavirus pandemic brought a dip to the transit system’s numbers during the past year, Arnold said.
CAT today sees a ridership of about 700,000 passenger trips, Arnold said.
“We started based on a community need, and I think that’s what our goal is, to continue to address those community needs,” Arnold said.
History of CAT
CAT was created due to a shortage of transportation for workers in Collier County, Arnold said.
“We were way behind the eight ball in transportation,” said Norm Feder, the transportation administrator for Collier County when CAT was formed.
The county at the time was not collecting federal funds designated for urban transportation, which Collier could receive and use, Feder said.
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“A lot of people didn’t think it would work,” Feder said. “There was a lot of hesitation, but the way I was able to sell it to the commission is, ‘We’re turning back this federal money. Why not set up a small system initially using 100% federal funds?’”
CAT exceeded one million passenger trips in 2006, Arnold said.
“That’s a pretty good system,” Feder said. “Demand was obviously here in spite of not having the typical need for high-density, Miami networks of the world.”
In 2013, CAT completed a new transfer station at the Collier County government center. Another transit station operates on Radio Road.
“We’ve got two beautiful transfer stations that we are utilizing to do our transfer activity,” Arnold said. “We’ve grown up from borrowing space to our own space now.”
During the past year, CAT has taken steps to innovate and plan for the future of the system.
In 2020, CAT launched a mobile ticketing app for riders, called rideCAT.
“Passengers can use their mobile device to purchase their tickets,” Arnold said. “They can plan a trip on it. They can find out where the buses are, all without having to use cash or anything like that.”
CAT has a new website, ridecat.com, where riders can find information about bus routes and the transit system.
CAT also completed a transit development plan last year, which plans CAT’s future through 2030.
The transit development plan highlights potential improvements for CAT and transportation needs that can be met throughout the county.
Examples include an Interstate 75 express route that would operate between the Collier Government Center and Gulf Coast Town Center in Lee County.
The plan also highlights a concept called Mobility on Demand, which would provide transportation in areas not close to fixed bus routes. Requests for transportation could be made through a mobile app, the CAT website or by calling a phone number for CAT.
“We’re not complacent. We’re not OK with the status quo. We want to continue to improve things,” Omar De Leon, a public transit manager for CAT, said.
The plan also involved an on-board survey of more than 1,000 passengers. Nearly 40% of those surveyed identified as Hispanic or Latino, nearly 30% identified as white and nearly 25% identified as Black.
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In addition, most CAT riders surveyed were between the ages of 35 and 44, according to the transit development plan.
Twenty years have come and gone, but Feder said he’s happy to see Collier is still committed to transportation.
“I’m very proud in the sense that the county has provided that alternative opportunity for transportation,” Feder, now a North Collier fire commissioner, said.
The CAT system still plans to be part of the county and meet community needs into the future, Arnold said.
“We’re excited about what we’ve accomplished and we’re looking forward to all we can accomplish in the coming years,” she said.