Pro-choiceBUILDING TRUST: CATS CEO Brian Marshall says the first step is regaining the trust and support of a community whose voters have largely resisted using and funding public transportation. 

By Steve Sanoski (Contact)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Forget the $1.2 million budget deficit Capital Area Transit System administrators are frantically trying to fill to keep from going broke by the fall. Mayor Kip Holden says the fledgling public transit system has a larger obstacle to overcome if it’s going to achieve lasting viability.

“Our problem is not just a short-term funding need for CATS, it’s much bigger than that,” Holden said in his recent State of the City address. “We need a system that doesn’t just serve the riders of need, but one that also serves the riders of choice.”

CATS CEO Brian Marshall, its board of directors and two outside firms studying the system and the future of public transit in East Baton Rouge Parish agree: Choice riders—people whose transportation options are not solely limited to public transit—are the variable to sustainability and future growth.

But attracting choice riders is “kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” says Jared Loftus, a CATS board member.

“Do we need people riding the bus before we can make it an effective service or do we need to make it an effective service to attract choice riders?” he says.

Marshall, who joined CATS a little more than a year ago after 20 years with the Chicago Transit Authority, says the first step is regaining the trust and support of a community whose voters have largely resisted using and funding public transportation.

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“We want to start by showing people that a positive business model is in place. After we build the confidence, then we rebuild the system. And after we do those things, you’ll see more choice riders,” says Marshall, who estimates 80% of CATS riders have no other transportation options. “It’s not as deep of a challenge as one would expect.”

It’s only been a year since CATS began tracking data on accidents, workers’ compensation claims, rider complaints and on-time performance; Marshall says significant improvements have already been made. Accidents are down 40%, workers’ comp claims have dropped 70% and on-time performance is up 30%, he says. GPS units will be installed on buses within the next six months to better compile data and measure performance.

CATS President Tom Govan also notes the system received a clean audit last year. While that might not sound notable, he says, it’s a milestone considering CATS’ administrative history.

“When I joined on the board [three years ago], we didn’t even have a significant financial statement to review,” Govan says. “There’s been a long history of dissatisfaction and mistrust of CATS. There’s been a lot of bad blood, but I think we’ve done a remarkable job of getting our internal house in order.”

Govan doesn’t mince words when it comes to his summation of CATS’ services, calling it “one of the worst transit systems I can think of.” He equates improving service, especially in light of funding challenges, with climbing “a very high mountain.”

“You don’t try to get to the top by sprinting. It’s going to be a slow climb, but we have our sights set on the peak,” he says. “That’s kind of corny sounding, but that’s really where we’re at.”

As a 29-year-old business owner who’s environmentally conscious and active in the community, Loftus is the kind of choice rider that CATS wants onboard. Though he’d like to support CATS firsthand, Loftus admits he’s only ridden the bus to do research for his role on the board. He doesn’t have a single friend or colleague who uses the system, either. When asked what it would take to get him to use CATS, Loftus says, “Don’t make it a pain in the ass to ride the bus.”

CATS routes have not been changed in roughly 40 years, Loftus says, and there’s minimal signage along the routes. The signs that are there don’t have any schedule information on them. There’s also a lack of benches and shelters, he adds, and it’s not uncommon for wait times to exceed an hour.

SCRATCHING THE SURFACE: Among the criticisms of CATS are routes that have not changed in about 40 years, minimal signage along the routes, a lack of benches and shelters, and wait times that typically exceed one hour.SCRATCHING THE SURFACE: Among the criticisms of CATS are routes that have not changed in about 40 years, minimal signage along the routes, a lack of benches and shelters, and wait times that typically exceed one hour. 

While new buses and expanded routes to the LSU area, Metro Airport, Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard medical corridors, and southeastern Baton Rouge, where many of the targeted middle- and upper-class choice riders live and work, have been discussed by the board, Loftus says, CATS needs to make its existing service more user-friendly.

“Even if we have to crank the system back a little bit in the short term, let’s get it to where people know that if a bus is scheduled to be there at a certain time, it’s there. Let’s make sure schedules are posted, and make sure that when people are waiting for a bus, they’ve got a bench or shelter,” he says, adding marketing efforts also need to be improved. “There’s so many things that we could do that are really low-hanging fruit.”

But CATS doesn’t even have the funds to pick the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, and it’s scrambling to find enough money to make it through the year.

“Frankly, absent of a dedicated funding source, CATS cannot go anywhere. They’ve already squeezed everything they possibly can down to the bare bones,” says Tim Crobons, who has been studying public transit systems for 25 years and is the lead planner working on a three-part study of CATS for Atlanta-based Connetics Transportation Group. Focusing on operations, market research and public transit alternatives, the first part of the grant-funded $800,000 study will be released this year.

Crobons pegs nonchoice CATS ridership at nearly 100%, and says there isn’t a successful transit system in the country with so few choice riders. Likewise, he says, every quality system has dedicated tax funding.

Last fall, voters rejected a 3.5-mill property tax increase dedicated to CATS by a 53%-47% margin. If it had passed, the tax would have generated about $11.5 million annually and doubled the system’s current budget. Marshall says public demand will dictate if and when the issue returns to the ballot.

John Fregonese, meanwhile, has been putting together the FutureBR 30-year master plan for land use and development, which has a strong emphasis on public transportation, and will begin releasing the plan later this month. He says a surprisingly high number of choice riders provided input during seven planning workshops and expressed a desire to use public transit.

“A lot of people came from south Baton Rouge-—those you wouldn’t think would be big public transit supporters,” he says. “Transit in Baton Rouge has long been looked at as charity, but I think more people are starting to realize that it has to be a part of the solution to the congestion problem, and it has to be looked at as an economic development booster.”

The city-parish provides about 35% of CATS’ budget, fares account for 15% and the rest comes from state and federal sources. “Every economically successful city has a reliable public transit system and we must, too,” Holden says, adding that the city-parish can’t afford to foot the bill. He used the State of the City address to urge the community to increase its support.

“This is not a challenge that government alone can solve, and it will not be a process that you can afford to watch from the sidelines,” he says. “To keep our economy strong, our people working and our young professionals who want to use public transit, this is something you must solve together.”