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The story of public transportation in Savannah began in 1869 with the formation of the Savannah-Skidaway and Seaboard Railway Company. This railway company started to provide intercity streetcar service by connecting downtown Savannah with the Isle of Hope, Skidaway Island, Thunderbolt, Montgomery Cross Road and the White Bluff area. The first cars were drawn by one horse each and had room for 12 seated passengers. The cars were heated by wood stoves, lighted by kerosene lamps and the horses wore bells to warn traffic of their approach. When the streetcar system began operation, residents who were previously unable to afford transportation welcomed the opportunity to travel outside of Savannah for the purposes of residency, employment, and recreation.
In 1890, the first electric streetcar ran across the rails of the Savannah Street Railway. These streetcars were the marvel of the dawning electric age, and this form of transportation enabled Savannah to begin the extension of the city limits. As early as the turn of the last century, the streetcar barn was located on Gwinnett Street at Harmon where Chatham Area Transit’s headquarters is now located.
The coming of the twentieth century saw the consolidation of the major local railway properties under the newly created Savannah Electric Company, which handled all lighting, power, and transit operations. The Savannah Electric Company constructed amusement parks and casinos at Thunderbolt and Isle of Hope so crowds would have someplace to go. The casino at Thunderbolt housed comic opera, vaudeville and even moving picture shows.
The early streetcars were staffed by a motorman who stood on an open platform. He wore a heavy wool blue coat and trousers through the year. There was no heat on board and the motorman stood in a cardboard box with rags wrapped around his feet to stay warm during the colder months. Passengers fared no better than the motorman as there was no heat in the streetcars.
The electric streetcars continued to flourish through the 1920s and 1930s, but were eventually overtaken by buses going into the 1940s. In January 1946, the Savannah Electric and Power Company sold its holdings to the Savannah Transit Company. On Aug. 26, 1946, the last streetcar operated in Savannah. The streetcar on this last trip was driven by motorman Luther M. Page who had been driving since 1912. With the dawning of the gasoline-powered city bus, Mr. Page chose to retire rather than to learn how to drive a bus.
In 1951, the STC had a contest for the design of a new bus token. An azalea design was chosen and 100,000 tokens were produced. Passengers did not care for these tokens because they could not use a safety pin to secure the tokens on their shirt or jacket. A short time later, the STC ordered the azalea token with a hole punched in the center and passengers were once again happy.
In July 1961, the Savannah Transit Authority (STA) was created by state legislation to take over for the private Savannah Transit Company. At that time, transit operations were still a break-even and sometimes profit-making service. Both nationally and locally, rising labor, fuel and equipment costs, coupled with greater automobile availability and declining passenger levels through the 1960s and 1970s brought on the need for federal and local subsidies to keep the buses rolling for those who still needed and/or wanted to use transit. With federal and local funding support, the STA was able to continue stable operations until the early 1980s when only insufficient government funding was available. The STA then entered the cycle of budget-balancing annual fare increases and service cuts as experienced by many other transit systems around the nation.
In 1986, with steadily worsening operating and financial conditions and recognizing the continuing community need for a reliable and affordable public transportation system, the Chatham Urban Transportation Study Policy Committee created a community-wide Transit Task Force charged with studying the local transit system and making recommendations as to the future of public transportation in Savannah and Chatham County.
Parallel to this activity, state legislation pertaining to transit operations was passed that allowed for the possible establishment of a new transit authority, the creation of a transit service district, and the establishment of a dedicated property tax to stabilize funding for transit operations. The proposed transit system board would be made up of the nine Chatham County commissioners and three citizen appointees. Funding was obtained for a study to identify the boundaries of a transit district, appropriate type and level of services, and required millage rates to support transit operations. Under the approved state legislation, the adoption by the County Commissioners of a local ordinance creating a special district was the triggering mechanism to officially establish the new Chatham Area Transit Authority. Upon adoption of the local ordinance in 1986, the Savannah Transit Authority ceased to exist and the Chatham Area Transit Authority officially came into existence on January 9, 1987.
In March 1987, the CAT Board approved an expansion program increasing transit service as five new routes were added and service levels were improved on two existing routes. CAT reinstated both night and Sunday service. A fare reduction was instituted from 85 cents to 75 cents. Extensive marketing publicized the introduction of a multi-ride ticket program with convenient ticket outlets. A management service company was selected, and the arrival of 35 new Gillig buses changed CAT’s fleet from the oldest in the state to one of the newest in the nation. A new logo and color scheme were also implemented. During this same time, the CAT Board approved the establishment of the CAT Mobility (née Teleride) demand-response van service for citizens with disabilities who were unable to use the CAT fixed-route bus service. CAT Mobility is a shared-ride, advance reservation lift-equipped transportation service that is available to individuals with disabilities in Chatham County who are unable to use fixed-route bus service as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
In 1989, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) presented CAT with the “Outstanding Public Transportation Achievement Award” for small transit systems. This award acknowledged CAT as the best transit system in its size category in North America. Also during 1989, CAT installed 31 new bus shelters and over 90 new passenger benches. As a result of the bench and shelter program, CAT received an award from the Historic Savannah Foundation for “Enhancing the Quality of the Historic District.”
With increased hours of operation, quality customer service, and an outstanding safety record, ridership increased over 32 percent from 1987 to 1990. Revenue increased and CAT’s preventive maintenance and other cost-saving programs reduced its operating costs.
CAT’s annual ridership rose from 3.5 million trips in 1990 to 3.6 million in 1993. New buses replaced those older buses still in the pre-1987 fleet. Four new CAT Mobility vans were purchased, increasing the fleet to fourteen.
In 1994, CAT’s service area expanded resulting in close to 90% of the residents of Chatham County living in the Transit District. Late 1994 also saw the introduction of the electric-powered CAT Shuttle that circulated in Historic Downtown Savannah, and the first lift-equipped buses arrived. These lift-equipped buses expanded transportation options for people with disabilities. Also in 1994, fare realignment took place with the base fare increasing from 75 cents to $1. This was the first fare increase since 1986. Ridership rose from 3,600,000 in 1993 to 4,100,000 in 1994.
In 1995, discussions were initiated on the construction of a downtown transit center. Federal funding was allocated for the building of this center to provide the citizens of Chatham County with a consolidated, centrally located transit center while enhancing CAT’s existing and expanding transit services.
In 1996, CAT played a major role, in conjunction with the Chatham Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), in the mandatory evacuation of Chatham County citizens in preparation for Hurricane Fran.
In 1997, four 20-passenger diesel vans were purchased to replace the electric-powered CAT Shuttle buses as well as to augment service on other routes. With the arrival of these new vans, CAT had 32 lift-equipped vehicles in its 65-bus fleet. Of CAT’s 20 routes at that time, 15 were served by lift-equipped buses. Also in 1997, CAT initiated the placement of new bus stop signs along some bus routes. These newly styled signs joined the orange bus standards, which have been a Savannah landmark since the mid-1940s.
In 1998, CAT developed its website, www.catchacat.org, which contains details about the transit system as well as route maps and schedules to assist site visitors with trip information.
In 1999, CAT and the City of Savannah signed an agreement that allowed CAT to operate its downtown CAT Shuttle serving both residents and visitors fare-free.
The year 2000 marked new demands in flexibility for public transportation. In response to community requests, CAT installed bicycle racks on all buses in its fleet. This year also saw the completion of CAT’s Strategic Transportation Development Plan (TDP). Recommendations from the TDP resulted in operations improvements and increased route efficiency.
In 2001, CAT purchased and placed into operation two trolley replicas on the CAT Shuttle route. The wheelchair-lift-equipped trolleys connect with most CAT routes in the downtown area and sport a distinctive Savannah green and gold design.
In 2003, the arrival of 31 new low floor replacement buses with a voice annunciation system for major stops made CAT’s fleet 100 percent lift-equipped. That same year, CAT took over the operation of the Savannah Belles Ferry system with the construction and christening of the Juliette Gordon Low and the Susie King Taylor, two distinct ferry vessels.
In 2004, CAT installed one hundred bus shelters throughout the Transit District under CAT’s passenger amenities program which also included the installation of benches and trash receptacles. Installation of 25 more new shelters with benches and trash receptacles was planned for 2006.
Through a contract executed in 2005 with the City of Savannah, CAT operated the successful Liberty St. Parking Shuttle on weekdays from the Liberty Parking Garage to other municipal parking garages and major downtown destinations.
In 2006, CAT saw the delivery of five new 30 ft. and five new 35 ft. low-floor buses to replace buses ready for retirement. Also delivered were eight new replacement CAT Mobility vans to transport people with disabilities.
Discussions continued on the location and service characteristics of a downtown transit center. This project, begun in 1995, had met with various challenges causing the Federal Transit Administration to require a thorough analysis of all feasible sites. CAT’s architect worked with an advisory committee to address the location, function and role of the site as well as characteristics of both the interior and exterior of the facility. Once funding, location, and purpose were identified and agreed upon, construction of this center would begin. A downtown transit station with a climate-controlled passenger waiting area and other passenger amenities could reduce bus traffic along Broughton Street and enhance service delivery for the entire community.
CAT’s stellar history continued to make strides in improving public transit services for Chatham County. From July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006, CAT fixed-route ridership was 3,520,337, an increase of 6.25 percent compared to the same time the year prior.
CAT has a major impact on the local economy by carrying people to work, to school, to medical appointments, and other activities. As part of the transportation development plan (TDP) completed in 2000, an onboard rider survey was conducted which indicated that 83 percent of riders use CAT to travel to work or to school (kindergarten through the university level). The collective income of employed riders who used CAT to commute was estimated to be $122,000,000. A second TDP completed in late 2006 yielded route improvement, technology and marketing recommendations as well as results of rider and telephone surveys. CAT’s future growth and direction was mapped out for the next five years, and as a result of the community’s input, the future called for different approaches to how we view public transit.
In 2009, CAT received a federal grant to purchase its first eleven hybrid buses. These buses improved fuel consumption, reduced exhaust emissions, and provided a quieter and smoother ride for the transit passengers. Each bus was equipped with six onboard cameras and performed on battery power when traveling under 30 miles per hour. The addition of the hybrid buses to the fleet demonstrated CAT’s commitment to be a responsible environmental partner in this community. 2009 also ushered the beginning of CAT’s new brand and progressive movement into the future.
In 2010, the CAT Board voted to enter into a delegated management contract with Veolia Transportation as a way of bringing private business efficiency to this critical public service. Under the public-private partnership, CAT rolled out a rebranding campaign designed to not only change the look of the buses but the entire perception of Chatham Area Transit and local public transportation. A new website was designed, new uniforms were chosen for bus operators, and the mentality that CAT was operating as a bus company was beginning to change. CAT transported more than 3.4 million people and began positioning itself as a regional mobility manager.
July 2012 brought the defeat of the T-SPLOST vote, a transportation sales tax initiative designed to fund infrastructure and transportation projects across Georgia as a countermeasure to declining federal and state funding. However, CAT staff continue to seek alternative funding sources through grants and state legislative efforts.
Other major project milestones during that time include collaborating with customers to revamp the Paratransit Plan and customer handbook to provide clearer guidelines and improve service; completing the data-collecting and community input stages of a new TDP to shape the next five years of CAT’s future; and progressing on the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) project, installing hardware and testing components.
In 2013, the CAT Board ended its contract with Veolia, believing the General Manager and staff capable of continuing their progress without the management contract price tag. That Fall, the new Joe Murray Rivers, Jr. Intermodal Transit Center opened with great success and a heartfelt dedication to one of Savannah’s strongest transit advocates. Soon after, in January 2014, CAT partnered with the City of Savannah to introduce the first transit-owned bike-share in the state of Georgia, CAT Bike. Starting small with two downtown stations—one conveniently located at the Transit Center.
By Summer 2014, CAT welcomed the community to an open house of its newly renovated Operations and Maintenance Facility. Boasting a state-of-the-art Control Center for managing transit operations, a key-less badge entry system, and on-site training facilities, CAT Central brought much-needed upgrades to the community’s only public transportation agency.
In October 2014, construction was completed on the first phase of an intermodal facility on Hutchinson Island. Designed to serve anticipated growth across the river, phase 1 of this project prepares the area for a second ferry dock with customer seating, cover, and information tools.
In 2015, CAT continued efforts to generate interest in full county-wide service, meeting with communities in west Chatham County. The first super stop was also completed, bringing new seating and bike racks.. A major marketing effort took place most of that year preparing customers for the discontinuation of change cards on the bus, lowering pass rates, and offering a brand new half-fare for youths.
In 2016, CAT celebrated some major funding victories, receiving awards totaling more than $15 million from the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority’s Go! Transit Capital Program and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bus and Bus Facilities Grant Program. Both grants will be used for replacing aging buses and paratransit vehicles. With the Board’s approval in November, a portion of the funds will also be used to purchase new electric buses.
CAT also stepped up for the community during Hurricane Matthew, providing free services before and after the evacuation, and helping to take and return the 4,400 people who evacuated.
In January of 2017, CAT celebrated 30 years of service. Later that year, CAT again provided free services to Chatham County during Hurricane Irma, transporting over 1,900 residents to and from out-of-town shelters. In May of 2018 CAT unveiled the first of 18 new 35-ft buses being added into its fleet.
In July of 2018 CAT, in a partnership with the City of Savannah, extended the hours of the dot Shuttle to better match the needs of the community. On December 31, 2018, the CAT bike-share program was shuttered due to market changes, low participation, and lack of funding.
In January of 2019 CAT announced its Let’s Go! Designing Better Transit Together initiative, which will result in a system-wide redesign of the community’s fixed-route bus network.
The project schedule is anticipated to result in an overhaul of CAT’s fixed-route bus network, based on technical analysis, best practices, and input from the community. The consultant team is led by Jarrett Walker + Associates, an international transit planning firm based in Portland, Oregon, with assistance from Symbioscity, an urban planning firm based in Savannah.
In October 2019, CAT launched an online purchasing site, pass.catchacat.org, which allows customers to order passes online and have them delivered to their doorstep. The online ordering platform allows riders to purchase the type of bus pass that is right for them, including full-day, weekly and monthly passes. Those that qualify for the discount program also will be able to purchase half-fare passes online. CAT Mobility tickets also can be purchased by eligible riders to use for the paratransit service for people with disabilities.
On Veterans Day 2019, CAT implemented a six-month pilot program that provides a 50-percent discount to former members of the military. The discount can be applied to most of CAT’s fixed-route fare options, including $1.50 one-way trips, $3 day passes and $50 monthly passes.
In December 2019, CAT approved the award of a mobile ticketing services contract to Token Transit. The Token Transit app will allow CAT customers to purchase tickets with their smartphones, which can then be used as electronic tickets to board buses. To ride, the rider simply shows the bus operator the ticket displayed on the smartphone instead of sticking a pass or cash into the farebox. In addition to making it easier to purchase a ticket, the simple process is expected to help CAT buses stay on schedule by reducing delays that sometimes result from multiple customers inserting cash or paper passes into the fareboxes.
Beginning March 2020, CAT began implementing COVID-19 processes to help reduce the spread and keep CAT passengers and employees safe. These include promotion of social distancing including limiting capacity to allow for this, increased cleaning operations and protocols, distribution of personal protective equipment to staff and riders, fare-free service to allow for rear-door entry to limit contact drivers and riders, and reduction in service hours. In September 2020, CAT launched it’s first phase of a text notification service to allow customers to receive CAT-related news directly to their cell phones.
As of March 2021, CAT began selling passes through the Token Transit mobile ticketing app which can be downloaded for free from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The service allows customers to purchase any pass currently available to customers, including discounted passes and CAT Mobility paratransit tickets. In addition, a fare-capping feature ensures that the app’s user never pays more than what is in their best interest. For instance, if a customer takes two rides in one day, that customer won’t be charged any more that day because the customer already paid the equivalent of a day pass. The same feature would apply to weekly and monthly passes. (With one-way passes, customers will still have to request a paper transfer ticket, if needed.)
Currently, CAT is progressively seeking to claim its true identity as the Savannah-Chatham County area’s regional mobility manager and will continue to focus on providing quality public transportation services in a professional and responsive manner. Transit innovations and new technologies will play a major role in this destiny, and the resources must be in place to embrace them. The continued support of our customers, stakeholders and community will be even more important. As our community grows and changes, so does CAT, because transportation is not an end but a means to success.
Chatham Area Transit Authority: Proudly connecting our community with the people and places they love.