Capital Area Transit System officials say the move will allow the transit authority to offer future trolley lines under a common brand: The Red Stick Trolley.
The change also puts some distance between the old Garden District Trolley name and the route, one of the lines aimed at residents with cars, so-called riders of choice. The Garden District Trolley was one of the routes that suffered relatively low ridership and struggled to provide consistent service.
CATS staff is creating a set of service standards to more objectively evaluate routes, including the trolley line, said CEO Bob Mirabito. The standards will take into account ridership, revenue per mile, fares versus expenses and boardings per hour, and Mirabito expects them to be complete next month.
Trolley ridership has dropped precipitously since service began early last year. In January and February 2015, the line averaged about 500 rides per month. However, the novelty appears to have worn off. This January and February saw 176 rides each. That’s approximately three riders per day, assuming each individual rider takes an outgoing and incoming trip and accounting for Sundays, when the line doesn’t operate.
However, CATS is implementing a marketing campaign to try to get numbers up, and if the Garden District route is judged sustainable, the agency is looking for opportunities to implement the Red Stick Trolley line in other neighborhoods.
Perhaps north Baton Rouge could use a link to Southern University, Mirabito said. Maybe it would make sense to introduce a line connecting neighborhoods in the south to Perkins Rowe, or run a trolley up to the zoo, he continued.
CATS is also buying two buses this year to run the Florida Boulevard Limited route, and they will be called the Red Stick Limited, but Mirabito said that was to take advantage of a federal grant that requires unique branding.
CATS board members have expressed interest in the Red Stick Trolley but also wondered how the line will work. Board member Ken Perret pointed out that CATS will have to win over the majority of people on the current route who already own cars. Perhaps the line, which runs until 10 p.m., will appeal to people who want to have a few drinks downtown in the evening , he said.
Board member Linda Perkins said she would like to see ridership numbers and standards for success, as well as information on the trolley’s marketing campaign. During the most recent finance and executive committee meeting, board members grilled staff when they asked for approval to allocate $147,500 for additional public relations funding, $8,000 of which was specifically marked for a Red Stick Trolley campaign. Ultimately, the matter was postponed so the staff could provide more specific cost breakdowns.
The Red Stick Trolley marketing campaign includes three aspects, said Christina Stephens, whose public relations firm has been hired by CATS. Representatives are meeting with business, neighborhood and tourism groups to disseminate information on the trolley, maintaining social media accounts and reaching out to businesses on the route, she said.
Many businesses along the route have more customers than parking spaces, and Stephens hopes they will see the trolley as an effective way to entice shoppers. To that end, she is distributing decals for business owners to put in their windows to advertise that they are on the route.
Her firm is also trying to educate locals, who sometimes don’t know how to use the trolley or where it goes. Stephens said she wants to attract regular users like commuters, as well as people who see the trolley as a novelty that they use less often. The campaign is also trying to lure new users as well as people who have tried the trolley in the past but haven’t come back.
The campaign will have to undo some of the damage to the trolley’s reputation.
“We’ve had some operational issues,” Mirabito acknowledged.
They ranged from breakdowns to drivers not showing up, causing a suspension of service, often without warning.
Mirabito said the trolley, which was requested by Garden District residents, does offer value, and that he hopes the marketing campaign will show the benefits to potential riders.
“We believe there’s still a need there,” he said.
Potential riders could include commuters who want to leave their cars at home, especially transit-friendly millennials, such as those who work at the IBM campus, he said. CATS is also working with tourism, development and other officials to coordinate service, such as by running the trolley on Sundays for the Arts Council’s Sunday in the Park series.
At the same time, Mirabito remarked that once CATS starts, markets and evaluates a line, there isn’t much else they can do. Two lines were recently cut due to low ridership, including a park and ride ferrying commuters from O’Neal Lane to downtown and a route between the Mall of Louisiana and downtown.
Other low-ridership lines such as the airport shuttle, which is also the focus of a marketing campaign, may need to be cut, or they could survive with some atypical funding, such as a boost from the airport commission or the tourism office, Mirabito said.
According to a 2015 ridership survey, 87 percent of CATS customers use the service because they don’t have any other transportation option. However, Mirabito said the authority will continue to try to reach out to riders who might use the lines by choice.
“Our goal is to build a transit agency that you will use whether you have to or you want to,” he said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.