If you’ve been on a CAT bus lately, someone with a clipboard might have asked where you’re going or how you think the bus system could be improved. Chances are, though, that you haven’t been on a bus. Ridership on the CAT–Capital Area Transit –is just 8,000 trips even on weekdays, and since that double-counts round-trippers, the actual number of bodies is less.

Still, if Raleigh’s to grow without sprawl, downtown density is a must and better bus service would certainly help. “It all comes down to land use,” Helen Tart says flatly. Tart, who works in the production department of The News & Observer, is the current chair of the Raleigh Transit Authority, the volunteer group that oversees CAT. Her “passion” is buses, she says, a fact she can’t really explain except to say that, after growing up “in total isolation” Down East, “I loved coming to the city and being able to get around without taking my car.”

The CAT system is better than people think, Tart says, but it’s not ready to pick up where the TTA trains will leave off when they start bringing riders downtown five or six years hence. That’s why the CAT’s next five-year plan, in the works with the help of a $200,000 consultant’s study ($180,000 from federal and state grants), is critical, she says. It should spell out future expansion needs and how to pay for them. The last five-year plan wasn’t clear on either score, and besides, it was undercut by the City Council’s refusal to add on to the city’s garage. The result: the CAT system is capped at 56 buses, 10 of which are more than 20 years old.

Past administrations, Tart believes, “always had the feeling that bus service was not something to be used by the mainstream.” It was for poor people or the handicapped only. In fact, if a resident complained about a noisy bus stopping right in front of his house, good chance the city would move the stop. And good chance the bus will be noisy, since the city won’t pay for new brake pads unless the old ones are completely shot. “I was very relieved when Mayor Meeker was elected,” she says, “because finally we have a chance to do a lot of things we’ve needed to do for years.”

Tart, though, is also a realist. Asked how much the CAT system should expand over the next five years, she thinks hard and then says: 30 percent. “I don’t want to sound too ambitious. I think we can achieve that much if we can get people involved in the study and arguing about what it should say. Right now, half the people in Raleigh don’t even know we have a bus system.”