Early Thursday during morning rush hour in north Baton Rouge, a CATS bus pulled up to a stop at the corner of Fairfields Avenue and North Acadian Thruway just about every 15 minutes.
While the frequency was right — as promised in the CATS tax election in 2012 — the buses were all off schedule. And the bus stop was just a sign on a post in an area with overgrown grass. There’s no covered shelter, not even a place to sit unless you count the curb.
This is the Capital Area Transit System in a nutshell. It’s been three years since the dedicated property tax passed to fund the expanded system and almost exactly one year since CATS rolled out its new service as promised to voters.
And the general consensus is that CATS, which has the benefit of an additional $16 million in tax revenue, is better than it was a year ago. It’s hitting some marks but still has yet deliver many of the things the agency promised voters before they agreed to an election.
“It’s better; it’s on time more,” said Kimberly Ford, a regular rider who was at the stop on Thursday. “But there’s still a lot of places the bus doesn’t go.”
Another rider, Michael Johnson, added, “It would be nice if there was a place to sit” at the stop.
In exchange for passing a tax to keep the floundering bus system afloat, CATS promised voters it would dramatically improve service, make it more reliable and expand the number of routes.
CATS created a list of specific promises: GPS tracking; increasing from 19 to 37 total routes; building 100 covered bus shelters at stops; reducing the wait times at bus stops from 75 minutes to 15 minutes; and changing the route system into a better-organized grid with multiple hubs to reduce travel time.
CATS set a self-imposed deadline of April 1, 2014, for the changes. A year later, CATS has chipped away at each of its benchmarks but has failed at completing any of them in their entirety.
GPS tracking has been unreliable. There are 31 total routes, rather than 37. Only 40 bus shelters have either been completed or are in various stages of completion, and only three bus stops have 15-minute wait times during rush hour.
Moreover, CATS has yet to achieve the over-arching promise of attracting what transit leaders have long dubbed “riders of choice” — passengers who have vehicles but opt to take the bus anyway.
“The past year has been really mixed,” said Edgar Cage, a leader with Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based nonprofit that is credited with both helping create and pass the tax plan.
CATS has done some things, he said, but some things have yet to be done.
“Timelines have improved, routes have increased, but that’s not to say that we’re where we want to be,” Cage said. “There’s still a lot to be done, and we’re not completely satisfied.”
For its part, ridership has increased to an all-time high of 3.9 million trips in 2014, an increase from about 3.75 million trips in 2013. But ridership was ticking upward at a similar pace even before the expansion. It was 3.6 million trips in 2012 and 3.5 million trips in 2011.
Trips don’t equate to individual riders, though, or even a single commute. They are counted anytime someone gets on a bus. So if a bus ride to a destination requires a transfer and two buses, that would equal two trips.
The data also includes more than a million rides a year from LSU students. After CATS lost the LSU service contract in 2009, the agency let students ride CATS buses for free in exchange for being allowed to include LSU’s bus service numbers, which are now provided by First Transit, in its own reporting numbers to leverage better federal grants.
CATS has created a handful of limited-stop routes specifically designed to attract commuters who work or are trying to get downtown. Last March, CATS rolled out the O’Neal Lane “Park and Ride” express and a shuttle to the Baton Rouge Metro Airport. Both routes offered Wi-Fi and were targeting businesspeople.
But both routes are dramatically underused compared to the traditional routes CATS has operated. In December , for example, the O’Neal Lane express had 140 trips, and the airport express had 252 trips. In contrast, the Florida Boulevard/Cortana route, a more traditional route, had 36,678 trips.
Both of the shuttle routes typically stayed under 200 trips per month. They also didn’t trend upward, as one might expect with awareness for the new shuttles growing throughout the year.
This year, CATS rolled out the Garden District trolley, which brings that neighborhood’s residents to downtown. It had about 600 trips in the first month.
CATS CEO Bob Mirabito said the Garden District route is significant because the neighborhood, which is primarily homeowners who also own vehicles, reached out to CATS and asked for the service. This demonstrates that there are pockets of potential riders who are warming to CATS, he said.
But the agency will begin evaluating its ridership data and determine the cost-benefit of continuing to offer underused routes, Mirabito said.
“Does it make sense to continue to pour money into park and ride? Does it make sense to continue to do an airport shuttle?” Mirabito asked. “Is there future growth opportunity? If not, we will have to make that decision.”
Other seasonal shuttle services offered by the agency have proven more successful at attracting commuters. The Touchdown Express route, bringing LSU fans to and from downtown to Tiger Stadium on game days generated $73,000 in ticket sales and more than 13,000 trips for the agency in three months. A shuttle service for Bayou Country Superfest in May, spanning just three days, resulted in another 4,800 trips.
The No. 1 issue hindering CATS’ reliability is its fleet. The agency reports that it is on time 75 percent of the time, but it defines “on time” as arriving anywhere between one minute early to 10 minutes late of the scheduled time. That means 1 in 4 times someone is waiting for a bus, that bus is likely going to be at least 11 minutes late.
Last quarter, CATS averaged 4.5 bus breakdowns per day — an improvement over the previous quarter when it was almost seven breakdowns a day.
There are 86 buses in total, but 28 are past their useful life and prone to breakdowns. Another 27 of the buses were purchased in 2005 from a now-defunct company that has created a litany of maintenance problems for the agency.
Mirabito, who has been with the agency for about 11/2 years , said the board and groups responsible for crafting the tax promises didn’t fully take into account the impact of breakdowns on the schedule and the need for more buses.
“I look at the original tax plan and see the only capital expenditures were for one year for 12 buses,” he said. “They didn’t put it into the plan that there were 45 buses that need to be replaced.”
Without a reliable fleet, Mirabito said, CATS will continue struggling to provide reliable service to its core riders.
“We still have a lot to overcome before we can get to riders of choice,” he said.
Buying a new bus costs about $400,000 each and takes 18 months to receive.
Mirabito said CATS is exploring financing options, including leasing buses, seeking a loan from a bank or issuing bonds. Those options, which are possible because of the dedicated tax to pay down any debts, could allow CATS to address its significant capital needs while spreading the cost over several years.
CATS did successfully rewrite its route system to create a grid with more transfer points, cutting down on the time it takes to get from point A to point B. Buses now go farther and faster than before.
But the frequency of buses still lags compared to what was promised. The main complaint among riders and transit advocates before the tax was that riders had to wait sometimes hours at a stop before a bus would show up. The average wait time was 75 minutes.
CATS promised that average wait times, during peak hours in the morning and evening, would be 15 to 20 minutes. Only three routes have 15-minute waits. None have 20-minute waits.
It’s expensive to put that many buses on a route, Mirabito said. And sometimes the number of people getting on the buses just doesn’t justify the cost. In fact, he said he recently increased the wait times for the Acadian/Foster route from 20-minute wait times to 30 minutes.
“It was oversaturated based on passenger count,” he said. But the change will save them $500,000 over the course of a year, which will be put toward reducing the wait times for a route in north Baton Rouge from 90 minutes to 60 minutes.
“What good does it do to have a bus running every 15 minutes if you have one customer on that bus?” he asked. “That doesn’t do any good.”
Time to reassess
Mirabito said he’s doing everything within his power, and budget, to deliver on the tax promises as best he can. But he said that at some point, the agency will have to do a comprehensive review and potentially look at a new set of goals.
“When I came in, decisions had already been made. This was the plan to go forward. This was sold to the taxpayers,” he said. “All of our efforts have been to implement the plan as proposed in 2011, but now we’ve been at it a year. Now it’s time to reassess.”
In the meantime, he’s also trying to improve services in other ways. CATS, this year, unveiled the Google Trip Planner, which makes it easier to find out what buses and transfers to take to reach a destination.
CATS is also working on a shuttle that will bring people from north Baton Rouge, described as a food desert, to grocery stores. And it’s in talks with Our Lady of the Lake and state officials to transport uninsured patients to urgent care facilities, in an effort to mitigate the loss of the emergency room at Baton Rouge General Medical Center Mid City.
Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said CATS has made admirable strides in the past year but said he understands that some voters may be getting restless.
BRAC, like Together Baton Rouge, was part of a group that helped develop the tax plan and its promises and promoted the tax during the election.
He said he believes that the tax money is enough to cover all of the things that the agency promised its voters and it’s up to management to make it happen.
But he’s sympathetic to the timeline. CATS lost a good year of progress, he said, as it dealt with hiring a new CEO and replacing several board members.
“I think the question is still out,” Knapp said. “Considering the delivery of what was asked for and the period of time we asked them to do it in, they have a little more time to prove to voters what they asked for. But not much time.”