Union officials press for state funds dedicated for local transit systems like CATS in East Baton Rouge _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Three buses idle, waiting to take off the CATS downtown bus hub in front of the Old State Capitol on Nov.3, 2015. A year ago, the Secretary of State's Office asked CATS to move the stop, saying it blocks tourists, endangers children who are visiting on field trips and blocks handicapped spots; it has now filed suit to make that happen. CATS has been saying they'll move it, but they have found locating a suitable location difficult, they say.

The Capital Area Transit System can continue to park its buses in front of the Old State Capitol, a state judge ruled Tuesday, rejecting a state agency’s request for a court order to stop them from blocking the property.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler sued CATS over its use of the curb directly in front of the historic building and museum as a bus hub where three or four buses at a time park all day long.

Schedler’s office, which oversees the building, argued in the suit that the buses block the main entrance and pose a safety risk to the hundreds of children and patrons who visit every week. Schedler’s attorneys argued that CATS is breaking the law by parking its buses in handicapped spots and areas striped off as “no parking” zones.

But Judge Michael Caldwell on Tuesday sided with CATS CEO Bob Mirabito and the agency’s attorney Creighton Abadie, who argued that they were granted the authority to park there by East Baton Rouge City Parish government, which owns and regulates the streets.

“You’ve sued the wrong party,” Caldwell told Schedler’s attorneys Tuesday as he rejected the state agency’s request for a preliminary injunction. “CATS has no authority whatsoever in this matter.”

CATS has promised several times throughout the year to move its bus hub away from the Old State Capitol, but alternative sites for the buses keep getting rejected so the buses have remained there for more than a year.

Mirabito said on Tuesday CATS likely will be forced to move from the site by next summer because of planned road construction in the area. But he said he shares Schedler’s frustration, noting that he’s been forced to move the downtown hub twice already because of complaints from other groups. Ultimately, he said, CATS can only move where the city-parish and other planning officials permit the buses to park.

“It’s absolutely out of my hands,” Mirabito said after the hearing.

Schedler said after the hearing that his office has not yet decided its next move.

“I am disappointed with the decision because we’ve cooperated for an extended period of time with CATS to come to a reasonable solution without success,” Schedler said in an email. “But the fact is, I have a responsibility to protect visitors to the Old State Capitol and right now the fire lanes are blocked and I have grave concerns that with the large number of school visits, a child could be put in harm’s way with the main entrance blocked.”

CATS has been struggling with its downtown location since it expanded its route services in 2014. CATS has several hubs across the parish where routes intersect and numerous buses can be seen waiting at a time.

The downtown hub serves as a nexus for at least 10 routes, making it one of the busier hubs. It was originally located about 200 feet away from the Old State Capitol where a covered bus stop with benches and digital signage had been constructed in front of Galvez Plaza, but downtown officials complained it was congesting the downtown area and was unusable during the numerous downtown events that cut off road access to that area.

Then the buses moved across the street in front of the Manship Theatre, but patrons complained that the fumes from the buses were getting into the building.

After consulting with city-parish staff, including the chief traffic engineer and William Daniel, chief administrative officer for the mayor-president, officials decided to allow CATS to use the curb in front of the Old State Capitol.

Almost immediately, museum officials lined the curb with orange cones and a security guard to prevent the buses from parking there, Mirabito said during the Tuesday hearing. But after meeting with city-parish staff to discuss the problem, Mirabito said, he informed museum staff they could not block use of a public street regulated by the city-parish.

During the hearing, Mirabito said that CATS buses are rarely in front of the museum for more than 10 minutes at a time. He said they never turn off their buses, therefore are not technically parking in a handicapped spot.

But Mary Durusau, director of the Old State Capitol, testified that buses were frequently parked outside of the building for in excess of 20 minutes, and that bus operators often turned their buses off to come inside the building to use the bathrooms on their breaks.

Attorneys for Schedler, led by Mary Ann White, argued that the buses are dangerous because patrons on tour buses have to walk between the buses to get into the facility. White also argued that the parked buses block emergency vehicles from the site’s fire hydrant in the event of a fire or another emergency.

Caldwell said that while patrons may be inconvenienced, Schedler’s attorneys failed to demonstrate irreparable damages in the form of a decrease in visitors or injuries to patrons since the buses started parking there.

Speaking on behalf of the city-parish, Daniel confirmed in an interview that city-parish staff gave CATS permission to park by the Old State Capitol.

“The secretary of state takes care of the building and we take care of the street, and we’re trying to find a compromise solution for CATS to be downtown,” Daniel said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.