It shouldn’t take Tabitha Smith 30 minutes to get to work.
She lives in the Gardere neighborhood and works at McDonald’s on Perkins Road near Bluebonnet Boulevard. By Smith’s own estimation, the trip takes five to 10 minutes by car.
She doesn’t have a car.
So like many workers in Baton Rouge, she boards the Highland Road bus for a 30-minute trip on weekdays and a distressingly longer one on weekends when the service is scaled back.
“It comes when it comes,” Smith, 24, said with not a small degree of resignation one recent afternoon while waiting for the bus with her 2-year-old son near the corner of Bluebonnet and Perkins Road. That day, her son had a doctor’s appointment at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. The trip required a transfer from her regular Highland Road line to the Bluebonnet line, which makes its way through the maze of medical offices off Essen Lane.
Smith and the roughly 14,000 other riders a day on the Capital Area Transit System may eventually have a bus and streetcar service that’s more frequent and quicker if the city adopts a mass transit plan put forward by Future BR. The initiative, culled from dozens of public hearings over the past year, will update the city’s comprehensive development plan — this time with a strong transportation component. The plan will go before city officials for approval later this year.
The hope among city leaders, bus riders and others associated with Future BR is that in five to 10 years mass transit in Baton Rouge will look a lot different.
Portland, Ore.-based Fregonese and Associates — the lead urban design consultant for Future BR — has proposed a transit system that places frequent bus service on primary thoroughfares like Plank Road, Scenic Highway, Florida Boulevard, Airline Highway and Acadian Thruway, while mostly maintaining CATS’ existing 19 routes.
The plan also proposes a new streetcar line connecting downtown with LSU via Nicholson Drive.
The proposed rapid service would bypass automotive traffic by dedicating transit lanes at intersections that allow buses to move to the front of the line, Fregonese said.
“What we’re talking about here are transit lines that are frequent and would follow, basically, one of the major routes you would take in a car,” Fregonese said. “They’re not trying to pick people up from all around and zigzagging across an arterial.”
Future BR’s transit plan creates routes that are “destination-driven, but also have enough people living around them to support transit in that area,” Joe Willhite, a transportation planner with Fregonese and Associates, said while addressing a 17-member Blue Ribbon Commission that is making transit and funding recommendations to the mayor and Metro Council.
The commission was formed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Together Baton Rouge and announced several weeks ago by Mayor-President Kip Holden.
Future BR’s plan would also invest in rider amenities like bus stop shelters and Wi-Fi transmitters for commuters wanting an Internet signal while they travel.
“We need to rebuild the system; not build on the mess that’s here right now,” Brian Marshall, CATS’ chief executive officer, said recently.
Operating a transit system like the one proposed by Fregonese would require an annual operating budget of about $22 million, further making the case for some form of dedicated funding. Today, CATS’ operating budget is about $12 million.
Last week, the Blue Ribbon Commission raised the ante with a proposal to establish a special taxing district, which would include much of the parish, excluding Central and Zachary and some areas in the southwest part of the parish. The commission is recommending a combination sales and property tax to generate about $18 million a year, lifting the CATS operating budget to $30 million annually when rider fares and federal funds are included. This proposal and specific recommendations on improving the transit system are expected to go to Holden in June. Voters would have to approve the sales/property tax proposal.
In October, voters rejected a property tax dedicated to CATS, with many saying the 53 percent to 47 percent vote was a referendum on the quality and efficacy of the CATS operation.
Speaking to the Baton Rouge Press Club in February, Adam Knapp, CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, referred to the bus system as, “probably not very exciting to the voters.”
Today’s Capital Area Transit System is barely treading water, and is scheduled to be parked in October if funding is not found to fill a budget hole of more than $1 million.
Substantially increasing CATS’ current budget could offer up the kinds of changes needed to transform the bus system from what it is now to a true metropolitan transit system, Marshall said.
“When you look at the peer cities, they had around $45 (million) or $50 million, and that’s what’s necessary to operate a real system here,” he said.
Future BR’s proposed streetcar segment connecting downtown with LSU would cost in the range of $30 million to $40 million, Fregonese said. The long-term goal for the line would be to run it through the LSU campus, extending south to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center on Perkins Road and hospitals like Our Lady of the Lake on Essen and Baton Rouge General in the Essen/Bluebonnet corridor, then terminating at the Mall of Louisiana.
“You start building market share through something like a streetcar to Tiger Stadium,” Fregonese said. “Where people are going to ride it, you know, what four times a year to go to a football game, but all of a sudden they become transit users.”
Coming up with a transit system that includes well-timed buses and streetcars — to say nothing of amenities like shelters, wireless Internet and GPS tracking — may sound like a tall order. And indeed, it would be a game-changer for anyone who depends on the bus for a ride to work, and the thousands others who drive, Fregonese said.
“My goal would be five years from now, you’ve got an awesome bus system,” he said. “You’ve done the traffic changes so that the buses move faster. You’ve got great stops that are installed …. You’re totally comfortable.
“And you’ve funded the streetcar,” he added. “And it’s under construction.”