The parish bus system is about to roll out three new, shiny trolley buses that will circulate downtown, replacing old CATS buses that were offering the same service.
The Capital Area Transit System has offered the services of the downtown circulators free to riders for a few years but has had to rely on used and old buses and trolleys.
The three new vehicles were purchased for about $270,000 each through a federal grant, CATS Chief Executive Officer Brian Marshall said. The grant required a $400,000 local match.
The first two trolley buses arrived within the past month, and the third is expected this weekend.
He said he hopes the circulators, with the antique aesthetic of a trolley and the functionality of a bus, will be on the streets by Monday.
The current downtown circulators are buses from CATS’ regular fleet. They were put into use last year when the old trolley buses broke down.
He said since the old trolleys were replaced with the CATS buses, ridership has dropped significantly because people think the buses are part of the regular CATS route.
“Currently no one uses the downtown buses because it’s hard to distinguish them from our regular buses,” he said.
The new grey and red trolleys have a distinct look and are clearly marked with “downtown” and “capitol park.”
The free service runs downtown every 15 minutes with 20 stops between South Boulevard and Hollywood Casino.
The trolleys run from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Marshall said CATS has never considered charging for the rides because of a commitment made to the city-parish and the Downtown Development District to provide the free service.
He also said the buses would not generate much revenue and it would deter people from using them.
The buses have a larger impact in helping move downtowners around the area efficiently, which is a boost to local restaurants and hotels, he said.
He noted that CATS receives about $1 million in hotel/motel tax money, as well as $3 million in city-parish funds that come from sales tax revenues.
Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said the trolleys are part of downtown’s master plan.
He said the Galvez Plaza construction will eventually include a glass terminal for the buses. He also said there will also be digital signage that will tell riders when the next bus is expected to arrive.
“We want to make it easy to move and to plan for the trolley,” Rhorer said.
Ultimately, Rhorer said, he hopes to extend the trolley hours to mirror workdays so employees can park anywhere downtown and catch a ride to their offices.
CATS is facing some unprecedented financial shortfalls and is operating on a budget with a $1.5 million deficit.
Marshall said the reason the local match to purchase the trolley buses was not cut from his budget was because it is tied to multiple grants being used for downtown renovation projects.
He said if they had returned the buses, CATS and the DDD would likely have to return several million dollars worth of other federal grants that were linked to the downtown transportation commitment.
CATS is also expecting six new buses for its regular fleet in August that were purchased entirely with federal stimulus money.
He said the buses, which cost about $315,000 each, will be used to replace broken-down buses, rather than bulking up the fleet of about 60 buses.
He said CATS considered purchasing smaller buses, but decided against it because they have shorter life spans.