A year after Baton Rouge and Baker voters approved a tax to transform the local bus system, some of the parish’s strongest supporters of public transportation are growing restless with the Capital Area Transit System.
Many advocates who campaigned passionately in favor of passing the new tax in April 2012 said they are frustrated by the lack of progress in building a bus system fast and reliable enough that even car owners would occasionally ride the bus. Some said they have lost faith in the leadership of CATS entirely, while others expressed frustration over what they perceive as infighting among board members.
“The people in the communities of Baton Rouge and Baker who are frustrated know what they voted for, they know what CATS promised to deliver, and they’re not really seeing it,” said Edgar Cage, a leader with Together Baton Rouge, the nonprofit that campaigned for the tax through churches and other institutions across the parish.
Before the tax passed, CATS leadership worked with Together Baton Rouge to develop a list of incremental deadlines they promised to meet as they built toward an end goal of a thoroughly transformed system by the first quarter of 2014.
By 2014, CATS has promised to add buses, reduce wait times for bus riders during peak hours to 15 minutes, change the route structure to a more efficient grid system and improve bus stops with signs, benches and shelters.
But at its most recent evaluation, CATS failed to meet several benchmarks, including putting up 10 new bus shelters, operating a functional GPS bus tracking system and decreasing wait times for specific routes.
CATS Chief Executive Officer Brian Marshall and board members defended their performance at a recent meeting with Together Baton Rouge to go over the benchmarks and where CATS fell short. They stressed that they would not make hasty decisions just to receive good marks from Together Baton Rouge.
In retrospect, Marshall said the quarterly benchmarks were never intended to be “an absolute list” of deadlines.
Cage said his group is simply holding the bus system accountable to the timeline its own leaders set for themselves and the public. He said CATS could have been making plans and starting to work toward some of these goals even before they had the funds in hand.
“CATS has had over a year to develop plans,” Cage said. “The failure to begin on something until now is a failure of planning on their part and not a matter of unreasonable expectations.”
Marshall said the agency is working furiously to meet its 2014 deadline. He said much of the work happens behind the scenes.
In the past year, CATS has hired 35 new bus operators and secured $15.4 million in state and federal grants to purchase new vehicles.
CATS also changed its logo in an attempt to reinvent its image. And wait times for some routes have decreased — although not by as much as the agency’s leaders had promised Together Baton Rouge.
CATS also put more informative signs at bus stops on three routes, Marshall said. He said even though it is not yet fully functional, a GPS bus tracking system was installed on schedule.
Last week, CATS put out a “request for proposals” for a program manager who is expected to start in June and will oversee the bulk of expansion and improvement plans.
“I’m happy that people are excited about the system and that they’re concerned,” Marshall said. “But at some point, the concern needs to diminish and trust has to kick in. … All we’re saying is give it time.”
Marshall and CATS Board President Isaiah Marshall, no relation to Brian Marshall, both agreed CATS needs to do a better job of comunicating with the public.
Isaiah Marshall said he was aware CATS would not meet the goals set for bus shelters and the GPS, but as far as wait times, “that was a blind side.” He said CATS should have better communicated their reasons for not meeting the goals ahead of time.
John Noland, chairman of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, said he advocated and raised money for the campaign to promote the CATS tax last year but now “doesn’t see any reason to believe” that CATS will deliver the services promised to taxpayers.
“I’m frustrated that there isn’t a sense of urgency by Brian Marshall, the CEO,” he said. “And the board has gone AWOL as far as I can tell.”
Noland said the CATS staff “doesn’t have the talent” needed to implement serious change. He said he’d like to see the agency bring in contracted management, as recommended in a consultant’s report presented to the board in January.
“I was appalled to see a lot of resistance from the staff (to the report). I’m sure they feel threatened, and they need to feel threatened,” he said. “If they can’t produce an adequate system by lead or follow, then they need to get out of the way.”
CATS board members discussed for weeks whether to go with fully contracted management and what the impacts would be on their current staff. The board also has been at odds over whether to renew Brian Marshall’s contract to lead the agency. He remains in place but is working month-to-month in lieu of a renewed contract.
Lauren Hatcher, a spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said BRAC also has been frustrated with CATS since the election. BRAC worked closely with Together Baton Rouge and CATS to reach out to the business community and advocate for the economic benefits of a better public transportation system.
“At this time, BRAC does not have confidence that our community is on the proper path to reach this goal,” she said in an emailed statement. “The recent Together Baton Rouge scorecard indicates the urgent need for a new direction.”
After the tax passed, BRAC started publicly urging CATS to release an implementation plan laying out the details of how they would deliver their goals.
Brian Marshall maintained that CATS had a plan in place but said it just hadn’t been put into a single document. CATS finally unveiled a 26-page plan last month.
“After a year of waiting, a plan is finally on the table, but it does not specifically lay out the concrete steps of how CATS will implement the goals in the plan,” Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence, said in an email. “I hope we don’t have to wait another year to find out whether it will be implemented effectively and efficiently — or not.”
David Aguillard, executive director of Catholic Charities, was heavily involved in the Blue Ribbon Commission appointed by the mayor two years ago that outlined the tax plan for CATS. He also said the implementation plan presented by CATS was a “restatement of goals” and lacked specifics on implementation.
“I continue to be disappointed and disturbed by the leadership of CATS,” Aguillard said. “They have gone off in a direction of finger pointing, being defensive and criticizing external insight and help, rather than welcoming it, analyzing and finding what is useful from outside input.”
He said CATS members fighting with the public and with each other has “paralyzed” their progress.
“They need to begin to look critically at themselves and the organization,” Aguillard said.
The Rev. Raymond Jetson, who participated on the Blue Ribbon Commission and became a spokesman for the tax ahead of the election said fixing CATS will be a “long term process.”
“It can’t happen as quickly as anyone would like it to happen, myself included,” he said.
Even some CATS board members say they’re frustrated by the lack of progress.
“I am disappointed in what I’ve seen as far as where we are today,” board member Jared Loftus said. “I would have hoped we would have been further along in our planning and implementation of the plan.”
But Loftus said the board is responding to recent criticisms and working together to generate results.
“In light of several things coming out recently, the board seems to be getting on the same page of what we need to do,” Loftus said. “Some changes do need to be made and it’s my opinion that the board will act on those changes.”
Board member Ryan Heck, who is also a Metro Councilman, also said change is imminent.
“A tremendous amount of progress has taken place in very short order of time since Together Baton Rouge released the report card on Monday,” Heck said, without offering additional details.
Isaiah Marshall said he knows CATS is battling a public image problem and is working to instill confidence in the community.
CATS has waged an advertising campaign in recent weeks to rebuild its brand. CATS has spent more than $60,000 in recent weeks on a public relations consulting contract with media specialist Clay Young and buying ad space with WBRZ, WAFB, The Advocate, the Baton Rouge Business Report and several radio stations brandishing its new green and blue logo with its tagline, “Moving Baton Rouge Forward.”
But Isaiah Marshall said CATS will earn back the public’s trust by showing real results.
“Public perception is vital in my opinion,” he said. “The only way to improve our public image is not to talk, but to show action that we’re moving forward.”