A new bill in the Legislature seeks to give the managers of the Capital Area Transit System the ability to actually manage the bus company’s operations.
The bill by Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, would eliminate the current requirement that the Metro Council review fares and route maps for the bus system.
Common sense, perhaps, but Smith’s bill may give an opening for some members of the dysfunctional Metro Council to score what they believe to be political points in an election.
CATS is set up by state law with a large board, with members chosen by the Metro Council — a body with a spotty record in picking level heads for places on the many boards and commissions it appoints.
But even when the council picks sensible people, it remains a highly political body that is jealous of its powers.
In fact, powers of the council are limited. The mayor-president and his chief administrative officer run city-parish government, although the council’s budget authority is a significant way for council members to push their agendas. But the limits of the council’s formal powers make members protective of the power they do have.
Throw in the controversy in 2012 over a new tax for the perennially underfunded transit system, and it’s a recipe for manufacturing an issue over Smith’s House Bill 159. That shouldn’t happen.
Smith’s bill gives the powers that most people probably assume CATS’ board and management already have, but in fact the Metro Council has at times been a significant stumbling block for public transit.
Nowadays, no one wants to go before the council if they don’t have to, the potential being great for off-the-wall objections to arise from the dais.
Before the tax, CATS was given only bare-bones appropriations. At least one board member — named by the council, remember — was found to be doing various unethical things, and other board members did not act to stop them.
But when the organization, always short of money, sought to reduce routes or otherwise trim services to meet budget demands, members of the council objected. The operating principles of good management and “don’t cut anything in my district” were typically settled in favor of the latter.
While CATS has its problems — it’s still not a very efficient way to get across town -— the organization is better run than it has been in a while, particularly in terms of its finances. CEO Bob Mirabito may have had no background in transit, but he contributed a business focus on making the buses run more or less on time, and ensuring that hundreds — or thousands — of quarters don’t bleed off between the fare boxes and the agency’s bank account.
Smith’s bill may eventually look like the 2012 measure that included a limit on the range of fare increases that the CATS board could approve. The 2012 bill also suggested a nominating process for board members that included professional qualifications for some spots and review by stakeholder groups before nominees went to the Metro Council.
The bill was approved by the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who implausibly discovered a tax increase hidden in its verbiage; he was probably acting at the behest of those upset when a tax to better fund CATS was approved that year.
What’s the reality of the Metro Council’s poor record on transit? The late Ronnie Edwards, then on the council, noted at one of its debates: “We are asking for CATS to deliver on promises to taxpayers, but every time they get close, there appears to be a great deal more micro-management.”
That’s still going to be the case if Smith’s bill is not passed.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.