East Baton Rouge Parish residents won’t be voting on a transportation tax for the parish bus system until at least next fall, which gives officials time to pursue legislation to create a special tax district.
At that time, voters within the boundaries of the proposed district will be asked to approve what is being estimated as a new quarter-cent sales tax and new 4-mill property tax to boost the budget and expand the operations of the Capital Area Transit System.
This plan, developed by a 17-member Blue Ribbon Commission, hinges on approval by Mayor-President Kip Holden, the Metro Council and legislative changes to create the new tax district.
The commission, an independent group of community leaders selected by faith-based community group Together Baton Rouge and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, spent the past two months researching long-term solutions for CATS to make it both usable for riders of need and desirable for “riders of choice” who already have transportation.
The group finalized its recommendations Thursday, which include significant service expansion and upgrades, including reducing bus wait times from 70 minutes to 20 minutes. The effort requires bolstering CATS’ budget with dedicated tax money, bringing its operating budget from $12.1 million to $29.9 million.
The Rev. Raymond Jetson, commission chairman, stressed that without funding, significant changes would not be possible.
“You get what you pay for. You cannot have a robust transit system without a dedicated revenue source,” he said. “You cannot have your cake, and eat it also.”
In previous meetings, the commission debated whether to pursue taxes parishwide or only in the Baton Rouge city limits. The commission ultimately decided the best option is to pursue legislation that would create a Capital Area Transit District encompassing the majority of the parish.
The district would exclude Central and Zachary and some areas in the southeast part of the parish.
The district would include all areas within the Baton Rouge city limits and the areas currently and expected to be served by CATS.
Local sales taxes are statutorily capped, and the parish has reached its limit. But having a special taxing district could allow CATS to levy a sales tax.
Last month, the group said they expected to pursue the legislative changes in the current session in order to bring the taxes to a vote this fall.
But the group has since decided to wait until next year.
“There just isn’t time in the current year,” said commission member Meg Mahoney.
The year-long delay means that new funding wouldn’t begin trickling into CATS until about March 2013. The system wouldn’t see the full impact of the funds until early 2014.
News of the delay was a disappointment to some CATS advocates hoping for a quicker turnaround.
CATS CEO Brian Marshall said he agrees that the decision might be the best plan for the long term future of CATS, but acknowledged that the decision leaves the bus system in limbo for at least another year.
“It really makes it tough,” he said. “But as disappointing as it is, I know it’s the right decision.”
R.J. Goebel, director of planning for the Capital Region Planning Commission, also said he had hoped the group would recommend taking action this year.
“The coals are hot now,” he said. “I think the publicity that has been given to this issue is enough that people are ready to respond to this now.”
Goebel said he’s concerned that CATS, which is operating in a deficit, could close down this year or endure another year of financial uncertainty.
CATS is facing a shutdown in October, because it lacks the funds to make it to the end of the year.
Earlier this year, CATS attempted to cut services to balance a $1.3 million budget shortfall, but the changes were rejected by the Metro Council, some of whom opposed the money saving measures, like eliminating weekend service and increasing fares.
Jetson has repeatedly distanced the commission from the immediate budget problems facing CATS.
“It’s not fair to ask this group of citizens with a two-month timeline to address the issues that have been bleeding for years,” Jetson said.
But CATS Board member Jared Loftus, who attended the commission meeting, encouraged the group to draw attention to the funding gap CATS is facing now.
“If CATS were to shut down, it would be very difficult to get voters to support a tax a year later when there is no bus system,” he said.
The commission is also recommending that CATS stop receiving funding from the city-parish general fund. It currently receives about $3 million per year from the city-parish; the rest comes from state and federal funding and fares.
This move would allow the CATS to exclude the Metro Council as a governing authority, which the commission says causes confusion over who was accountable for the bus system.
CATS is overseen by its board of directors, who are appointed by the Metro Council, but the Metro Council has final approval over major operating decisions.
The commission recommended changing the CATS board to include criteria ensuring that members have experience in development or represent different transportation stakeholders in the community like riders, business leaders, and non-profit representatives.
The future CATS board would be appointed by the Metro Council, but would have the final decision-making authority.
CATS board member Bryan Jones said he supports a complete overhaul of the organization.
“CATS is on life support,” he said. “It’s not a Metro Council problem or just a CATS problem. It’s a community problem and we all need to come together to fix it.
The commission is scheduled to present the report to the Metro Council on June 22.
Jetson said he expects the commission will formally brief the mayor-president before that time.
While the commission’s work formally ended Thursday, Jetson invited the group’s members to continue to meet informally to help promote an election campaign and engage the public.