As the City of Norman and OU continue to negotiate CART’s future, the city expects all Norman residents to have access to the same services as before for the first year after the transition to city operation.
CART, which OU has operated since 1980, will no longer be run by the university entirely. Sometime between July 2 and Aug. 1, Norman’s public transit system will begin to be run by the city.
Shawn O’Leary, director of public works for the City of Norman, said change is “always a little bit challenging,” and the city and university are still working out the details of the transition.
O’Leary said EMBARK, the organization that operates the bus transit system and streetcar system in Oklahoma City, will be Norman’s new bus provider.
O’Leary said while the city agrees it makes sense for OU to operate the Lloyd Noble shuttle, which currently accounts for over 50 percent of CART’s annual ridership, the city and OU are still negotiating whether OU or EMBARK will operate three other routes that OU has proposed it continues to service — the campus loop, the apartment loop and the research shuttle.
O’Leary said the university has said it wants to keep those routes because the data has shown those routes are heavily ridden by students, but the city isn’t sure whether it should give up routes other than the Lloyd Noble shuttle.
“We’re still having that conversation with the university, and we’re not sure if we’re interested in giving those up. Our belief is that if we’re going to run a bus system, we’d like to run the entire community minus that immediate campus route. So that’s one of the things that has yet to be negotiated.”
O’Leary said the transportation system should not change, at least at first.
“Effectively, the system will look very similar to what it looks like today, at least for the first year or so,” O’Leary said. “We’re going to try to retain all the same routes, all the same times, all the same bus stops, and so on. ... The bus might say EMBARK on it instead of CART, but it will be the same kinds of buses, the same kinds of services that are being provided today — including CARTaccess.”
O’Leary said the city has been approaching the issue with short-term and long-term goals in mind.
“Short-term,” O’Leary said, “we are determined to not have any break in service and we want to take over the system as soon as the university needs to stop operating it, so we want to scramble and get it transferred over to a new operator. To do that, it was practical to take on exactly what CART had already designed, what they were already doing, and we think that’s easier on the customers, too.”
O’Leary said in the future, perhaps in a year or more, the city will consider making more changes to its operations of Norman’s city routes.
“Once we get established and get our operation settled out, perhaps in a year or so, we’ll have an idea of whether we want to change the routes, change the rates, expand the system, all those sorts of things that we’ve heard a lot of feedback about. We just feel like we need a year under our belt before we’re going to be prepared to do that.”
O’Leary said the city is also negotiating terms to lease part of the Theta Dempsey Transportation Center from the university, which he said was built about ten years ago to facilitate CART operations.
O’Leary said while the hope is for former CART drivers to be able to work for EMBARK as it takes over operation of Norman routes, the city can’t promise that yet.
EMBARK employees operate under a union system, while university drivers did not, O’Leary said. This and other differences may make it difficult for drivers previously employed by CART to work for the transit system operated in Norman by EMBARK.
“It’s not as easy as saying that EMBARK will just hire these folks here locally and give them the same routes if they’re not allowed to do that under union rules. It’s a little complicated that way, and we as a city don’t want to tell EMBARK how to run the system,” O’Leary said. “So we’re certainly not going to tell them who to hire or how to hire.”
But O’Leary said while he expects EMBARK to make its own hiring decisions, the city has discussed the former CART drivers with the new operator.
“It has been strongly encouraged by the city and pretty well received by EMBARK that, particularly the drivers that are here today in Norman working for CART, would be highly considered to come over to EMBARK when they are ready to hire.”
O’Leary said the negotiation whether students may continue to ride on the bus system for free throughout Norman is ongoing, but that could happen through an annual payment from the university to the city based on student use of city routes.
“The university is interested in making sure that the students will continue to ride free on the bus system whether it is the city’s portion of the system or whether it is the university’s portion of the system, so we are negotiating (students riding free) as well,” O’Leary said.