In the latest setback to parish bus service, the Capital Area Transit System is withdrawing its bus hub from downtown — a decision that could lead to longer travel times for downtown riders.
CATS Chief Executive Officer Bob Mirabito announced the agency is preparing for the change, which is expected to be implemented by April. The removal of the hub follows several months of pushback and shuffling by city-parish and downtown officials about where the downtown hub should be.
The hub already has been shifted twice downtown, with officials complaining that crowds of parked buses congest narrow downtown streets. Last month, CATS was sued by the Secretary of State’s Office over the location of the downtown hub in front of the Old State Capitol, which it said blocks its entrance and handicapped parking spots and poses a safety risk for its visitors. A state judge ultimately ruled CATS had appropriately been given permission to park on the streets by the city-parish, which regulates the streets.
In 2014, CATS rolled out a service expansion, fueled by the dedicated property tax approved in 2012. A key element of the service expansion was the creation of four new bus hubs: downtown, Mall of Louisiana, Cortana and North Baton Rouge. The hubs are places where people can transfer buses, and the increase in hubs allowed for more direct routes between destinations, increasing efficiency and reducing travel times.
The downtown hub was one of the busiest ones, Mirabito said. But because of a lack of workable options for the buses in the heart of downtown, Mirabito said, CATS will redraw the routes, using the Florida Boulevard terminal as the closest downtown bus hub.
Buses will still be routed through downtown, but the change means that riders trying to get downtown for work, or to go to a restaurant or bar, might have to make an extra stop to change buses to get there.
“It’s disappointing,” Mirabito said. “What I understand is that people wanted to be able to travel downtown by bus, and now we’re probably going to increase that travel time. For someone who is a ‘rider of choice,’ if they want to take a bus to work now and they work downtown, there’s a strong possibility they will have to stop at the (Florida Boulevard) terminal and transfer to another bus.”
Riders of choice is a term coined during the campaign to pass the CATS tax, when transportation advocates expressed their desire to make the bus system appealing to more than just poor people who have no other transportation alternatives.
Mirabito said he was told by officials that the downtown bus hub would have to be underneath Interstate 110, which is on the very edge of downtown and a far walk from most of the government offices and downtown attractions closer to the riverfront.
“It didn’t make financial sense to spend a lot of money, just to get to the edge of downtown,” Mirabito said. “From a taxpayer standpoint, this is the best decision.”
The change will cost between $250,000 to $500,000 dollars, Mirabito said. He said it’s a labor-intensive effort and staff will effectively be redoing its system route expansion to accommodate the hub shift.
Mirabito said it’s important the agency continue to serve downtown, and expects they will provide a “circulator” bus route to serve the area. He also said he hopes that in the next two or three years, they can explore options for purchasing private property to build a downtown hub.
“Not having a large presence downtown, some people may see that as a step back, but we’re just playing the hand we were dealt,” he said. “We’re going to make the improvements we need to make. We apologize for this inconvenience, but we’re going to try to make the best out of this situation.”
Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, president of the Center for Planning Excellence, said ultimately CATS and city-parish officials need to find a way to get CATS back to downtown in the future.
“Now that downtown is growing and prospering, a downtown transit hub is crucial to promoting the accessibility that we need for these workers and residents,” she said. “If the hub has to move out temporarily, we must commit now to finding a permanent downtown location that provides the necessary accessibility and amenities for this existing and potential ridership.”
Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said the problem with a busy downtown bus hub is that the streets are filled with drivers and on-street parking, making it hard to accommodate four or more massive buses parked on the side of a street.
“Downtown has intimate streets,” Rhorer said. “(Mirabito)’s tried hard. He really has, and we’ve tried to look everywhere. I certainly want to help because we want to make transit a meaningful part of downtown’s growth.”