Drivers for the Capital Area Transit System say they don’t feel safe driving old, poorly maintained buses, and neither should riders or the driving public of East Baton Rouge Parish.

About a dozen off-duty drivers picketed outside the CATS terminal on Thursday, complaining of unsafe vehicles and saying they’ve lost confidence in the management staff led by CEO Bob Mirabito.

Mirabito responded that the buses are perfectly safe and questioned the timing of the protest.

“I think it’s interesting that these matters are coming up when we are starting to focus on the internal operations within the different departments,” he said. “When you start talking about changing the way things have been done for a long period of time, that can make people very uncomfortable and very nervous.”

CATS Union President Katie Guy said Thursday that employees want to warn the public that management is neglecting bus maintenance. She said there have been at least three instances in recent months when brakes went out on a bus while a driver was on the road. In December, she said, a brake failure caused a bus driver to ram into the back of car, which, in turn, hit another car on the road.

“How long before someone gets killed with these buses?” Guy said. “They’re taking old parts off of old buses and putting them on buses, and they’re not holding. This is about safety for the operators, the customers and the citizens of East Baton Rouge Parish driving on these highways.”

Mirabito said the maintenance department determined that there were no brake issues in each incident. He suggested the crash likely was the fault of the driver. He said all three buses were determined safe and are still on the roads.

Mirabito said it’s no secret that CATS has many old buses that are prone to breaking down, but he said any time there’s a bus with safety concerns, it is parked. There are currently 14 buses that are indefinitely parked because of maintenance issues, he said.

CATS has been plagued with problems for years because former managers purchased inadequate buses from a company that, ultimately, filed for bankruptcy. Because those buses are no longer being manufactured, Mirabito said, CATS sometimes has to purchase used parts or take working parts from a sidelined bus to address maintenance issues.

Last year, CATS spent $5 million on new buses and plans to spend another $5 million over the next 18 months to build up the fleet.

The employees carried hand-written signs on posterboard with messages including “Safety First,” “CATS in-house is a Mess” and “CEO has got to go.”

They complained management is violating the union contract in the way it disciplines employees. They also questioned the recent promotion of the new director of operations, Abby Hannie. Some of the signs targeted Hannie’s role specifically.

Hannie previously served as a communications manager for CATS but was recently promoted to director of operations. Guy questioned the promotion because, she said, Hannie has no previous experience in transportation management.

Hannie is paid a salary of $80,000 as director of operations, which is a $25,000 increase from her salary as communications manager.

Mirabito said he has full confidence in Hannie, who has a corporate background working for Barnes and Noble.

“I have a team built with a combination of transit experience and people with corporate experience, and I’m very confident this leadership team we have in place will be successful,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

According to Hannie’s online résumés, she was a community relations training manager for Barnes and Noble and has a degree in early childhood education.

Mirabito, Hannie and the human resources manager are in California this week visiting other transit agencies to learn practices.

Mirabito also was criticized for his lack of transit experience after he was hired as the permanent CEO. However, when his contract came up for renewal last year, he won unanimous support from CATS board members and representatives from other transit groups who previously had questioned his résumé.

CATS management also is supplemented by MV Transportation, a contracted firm that has national transit expertise.

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