Union officials on Wednesday presented several ideas for raising state funding for local public transportation agencies such as the Capital Area Transit System.
Other states have found creative ways to pay for city bus services, said representatives of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents some CATS employees and transportation workers in Alexandria, Jefferson Parish, New Orleans, Shreveport and Monroe.
The union plans to lobby the state Legislature next year for a dedicated state funding source to pay for city and parish transportation services, which are financed primarily from local taxes at present, representatives Antonette Bryant and Anthony Garland told East Baton Rouge Metro Council members during an informational meeting.
Louisiana should consider collecting additional fees on specific transactions, the union representatives said. Legislators may be willing to accept specific surcharges rather than levying a new tax, Bryant explained.
Some of the union’s suggestions would specifically target people driving personal vehicles instead of taking the bus. Louisiana could put a surcharge on parking tickets and give the money to transit systems, like they do in South Carolina, Bryant said. Or, the Legislature could earmark money from hotel or rental car taxes — as Arkansas does — or on gasoline taxes, as is Georgia’s practice.
Louisiana also could consider Florida’s system, which puts a transit charge on real-estate transactions, which would generate money without dipping into the average resident’s pocket too often, the representatives said.
Those one-off fees, however, may generate more-sporadic funding than a consistent property tax. Garland said city or parish millages probably would be still necessary under any new state funding endeavor, but local agencies may be able to lower their collections with help from the state.
And the union expressed serious concerns about the CATS 10.6-mill property tax, now about halfway through its first 10-year collection.
When Baton Rouge voters see “buses that are literally falling apart,” they may be hesitant to renew the tax, Bryant said.
Councilman Ryan Heck said CATS has made improvements over the years, but he wasn’t sure if throwing millions of dollars at the agency would solve its problems. Giving the system state money might also de-incentivize voters to renew the local tax, he continued.
One problem is that Baton Rouge lacks a comprehensive transit plan that accounts for bus routes, shuttle lines and possible railways, Councilwoman Tara Wicker said. She compared the current system to putting bandages on scrapes instead of having a complete strategy. Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who sits on the CATS board, agreed in spirit but said the system still has to provide service today while coming up with a grand scheme.
Baton Rouge needs a plan but shouldn’t expect it to come from CATS, Garland said. If the city wants to make public transit work in Baton Rouge, leaders have to make a greater commitment, he continued, suggesting new bus-tracking apps and dedicated bus lanes.
Councilman John Delgado again brought forth an argument for privatizing CATS management, which the agency’s board has rejected. The union representatives also stood against privatization, saying systems like the one in Washington D.C. suffered under private management.
Delgado also challenged the union to present a plan that allocates any potential state money fairly among localities with transit systems, so a city like New Orleans can’t hog all the funding. The union representatives said they will also have to make sure that their plan specifically funds transit agencies, and not go to transportation more broadly, since that would make the funds vulnerable to being snatched up for infrastructure repair and construction.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.