LSU’s Tiger Trails Transit System is offering a nighttime route from campus to downtown Baton Rouge, and the Capital Area Transit System says the competition is unwelcome.
Tiger Trails, run by Ohio-based First Transit, took over LSU’s campus transit in August 2009. Its contract expires in 2014.
Before 2009, CATS, the public bus company for East Baton Rouge Parish, held the LSU contract for 34 years.
CATS Chief Executive Officer Brian Marshall said the private company is unfairly trying to compete with his company.
In addition to its campus routes, Tiger Trails has operated nighttime service between campus and Tigerland, the popular bar strip off Nicholson Drive.
This year, at the request of LSU’s Student Government Association, Tiger Trails tweaked an underused night route to include downtown.
The route, which runs every 30 minutes, runs Monday through Wednesday from 6 p.m. to midnight, and Thursday through Saturday from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.
CATS buses run most weekdays until approximately 11 p.m., Marshall said.
Marshall said he plans to file a formal complaint with the Federal Transit Administration and with LSU.
“They (First Transit) have a contract of service for students,” he said. “It should not and does not have the authority to service the city. I completely object and resent their encroaching on our business.”
Marshall also said if LSU expands its bus service, the additional service should go through the public bid process so CATS can have a chance to compete.
Ernie Ballard, an LSU spokesman, noted “that this isn’t an expanding of a route, but rather a reroute to better meet the needs of students and fulfill a service that they have requested.”
The Tiger Trails service is paid for with student fees, but anyone along the routes can ride for free.
Marshall said that arrangement makes it impossible for CATS to compete, and called it unfair to the students who pay for the service.
“It’s one thing to compete,” he said. “It’s another thing to compete against free.”
LSU has not received the complaint, Ballard said, and will withhold comment until staff have more information.
In the meantime, SGA President Cody Wells said students are thrilled about the route change.
“It will give our students who don’t have vehicles a way to get downtown and take part in this nightlife,” Wells said. “And for our students who will be patronizing those downtown bars, they’ll have a safe and responsible ride back.”
Wells said expanding the service to downtown this year opens students up to “art galleries, upscale bars, fine dining and all of the culture of a major downtown city.”
William Waters, general manager for First Transit, said the downtown route started last week.
He said between Thursday and Saturday, 60 people were transported on the downtown route.
“That’s pretty good since Thursday was move-in day and this is the first time the route has ever been used,” Waters said, adding that he expects more students to use the bus route in the coming weeks.
An average month during the school year can have more than 10,000 students transported using First Transit’s night service, Waters said.
First Transit also offers daytime trips from campus to downtown, according to the Tiger Trails website.
This year, First Transit will also offer a Saturday morning shuttle to bring students to the downtown Farmer’s Market.
Waters could not be reached for additional comment Tuesday to respond to Marshall’s remarks.
Davis Rhorer, director of the Downtown Development District Commission, said he’s pleased that there’s demand from LSU students to have a stronger connection to the city’s downtown.
“I’ve heard from several LSU students that Third Street is the place to be,” he said.
Marshall has said the loss of LSU’s $2.4 million contract has been detrimental to CATS’ shrinking budget. He has said in previous interviews that he hopes to win the contract back after First Transit’s contract expires.
Students initiated the break from CATS because of complaints about unreliability.
LSU pays $3.5 million a year for First Transit compared to $2.4 million for CATS. Students pay $66 a semester in the fall and in the spring for the bus service compared to $44 per semester when CATS had the contract.
Despite the higher price tag, Wells said he prefers Tiger Trails.
“I love Tiger Trails,” Wells said. “Ever since we got this deal, campus transit has been much more manageable and more student-friendly.”