In 2009, the Capital Area Transit System lost its contract to provide bus service to LSU’s campus, ending a 30-year partnership and costing the public bus agency about $2.4 million a year.
But this year, CATS could get its chance to win back the valuable contract and reclaim its position as the sole bus system for the parish.
CATS that year lost out to First Transit, which has been operating under a five-year contract. The contract was supposed to be rebid last year, but instead was renewed for an additional year.
It is now set to expire this June, and expected to be put out for public bid for the first time since CATS lost the contract.
CATS CEO Bob Mirabito said the agency has been waiting since last year for another shot at the contract.
“We want to be able to provide more transit service in Baton Rouge,” Mirabito said. “Right now, the two systems are not tied together, but if we were to get LSU back, it would be a seamless transition for a student who wants to get across town using one bus service.”
The Tiger Trails bus service on LSU is owned by First Transit, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based company that oversees transit services on at least 25 campuses nationwide. CATS offered the LSU bus service for decades, but the contract was put out for bid because students frequently complained about the level of service.
“It had to do with unreliability and they had problems with bus drivers and trying to get them to drive at certain times,” said Jeffrey Campbell, LSU Parking director. “There were multiple, multiple customer service problems and that was really what made the university put it out for bid.”
The contract is even more valuable these days. First Transit earns about $3.8 million per year from LSU, mostly funded via a student fee that’s about $70 per year, Campbell said.
The loss of the contract in 2009 contributed significantly to CATS’ financial crisis, leading it to seek a dedicated tax in 2012. At the time, the contract made up almost 20 percent of the agency’s $13.8 million budget.
The LSU students also made up a large portion of the agency’s ridership — numbers that are important for trip-based federal funds. CATS still allows all LSU students to ride buses for free to boost its ridership numbers.
CATS has significantly expanded and improved its service. With the new property tax, CATS has more than doubled its operating budget, expanding its routes and increasing bus service frequency.
CATS has also made inroads with LSU by offering game-day shuttle service to Tiger Stadium from downtown during football season.
But First Transit is popular with students, says Clay Tufts, LSU Student Government president.
He said First Transit has been receptive to student input asking for additional routes and nighttime hours to bars in recent years.
“Generally, everyone is pretty satisfied,” he said. “With anything transportation related, there are going to be some complaints here and there about traffic, but everybody seems to really enjoy the service they’ve been offering.”
Students in particular like the online and smartphone tracking system employed by First Transit offering real time updates via GPS indicating where the buses are located.
“Students rely on that heavily,” Tufts said. “You have in real time on your map where you can see exactly where the buses are.”
First Transit uses TransLoc for the GPS service.
CATS, likewise, unveiled a bus tracking service called CATS TRAX online, with a smartphone app called RouteShout. However, the service has been problematic for the agency for two years, generating complaints because it’s oftentimes inaccurate and difficult to navigate.
Campbell said he expects the next LSU contract to be for 10 years, rather than five, because it would provide a cost savings for students and allow CATS to make long-term decisions about bus purchases.
He also said the contract would require a dedicated fleet for LSU’s bus service. There are currently about 23 First Transit buses serving the campus. Campbell said if CATS gets the contract, LSU would want it to designate separate buses for city and campus uses.