CEDAR CITY — It bears a remarkable similarity to an oversize ice cream truck —complete with a candy red stripe hugging its vanilla coated sides — as it travels the main streets of Cedar City.
"I guess it does kind of look like an ice cream truck except there's no annoying music," said Rick Holman, Cedar City's administrative services director, of his city's new public transit buses.
CATS, or the Cedar Area Transit System, hit the road Monday offering free rides this week to anyone willing to hop on board.
"For the first day it's been really great, with lots of people calling and wondering about it," said a woman who answered the phone on the CATS information line. "I imagine tomorrow it'll be really busy."
The two 11-seat buses and two minivans that make up the CATS fleet were a bargain, said Holman, especially since they were hand-me-downs donated by the Five County Association of Governments.
The Cedar City Council is providing around $16,000 for operation of the transit system through the end of June, and an additional $48,000 of city funds will be available to keep CATS rolling for another year beyond that, Holman said.
"CATS is on a 16-month period trial basis. It's not permanent at this point," he said of the fledgling fleet. "We'll have to see if the community uses it."
Results of a transportation survey indicated most of the disabled community would use a public transportation system, while 23 percent of 800 others who responded said they would use it, he said.
"I think there's a willingness from the council and community to evaluate the system at the end of that time," said Holman. "That's why this whole week it's free. We want the whole community to get out and see it."
One-way tickets on CATS cost $1, while Dial-a-Ride tickets, provided for the disabled, cost $3 each way. Riders can choose from any of 28 stops along a route that covers much of downtown Cedar City area and includes the new hospital, major shopping areas, both high schools and Southern Utah University.
"We know the $1 ride won't cover the rest of our costs," said Holman. "But we're going to keep a close eye on ridership and finances. We'll keep a handle on that and give the council quarterly updates."
Not too long ago, CATS buses were being used in St. George under a public transportation system initiated by the Five County Association of Governments. In September, the St. George City Council voted to take over the transit system in 2003, downsize the fleet, reduce the routes, change its name and create a new image.
"The system is actually exceeding our expectations," said Larry Bulloch, St. George public works director, who added ridership is expected to hit the 60,000 mark this year. "I think everybody's very pleased we made the decision to keep the system."
The biggest unknown, said Holman, isn't whether people will ride the bus, it's whether gasoline prices will keep climbing out of sight.
"Gas prices are kind of scary that way," he said. "But we may find more people willing to walk to the nearest bus stop and take a ride. We don't have big buses. They're not large. But it's a good riding experience."