Civic leaders often appoint blue-ribbon committees to study questions for which most people already seem to know the answers.
A good case in point is a citizens’ committee recently selected by the faith-based community group Together Baton Rouge and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber to find long-term solutions for the city-parish’s struggling transit system.
The Capital Area Transit System, or CATS, doesn’t have a dedicated source of funding and gets by with a mix of fare revenue and federal, state and local money.
That erratic patchwork of funding hasn’t been able to keep the bus system on a consistently sound financial footing, and CATS is in danger of closing by year’s end if its managers don’t find an estimated $1.4 million to plug its deficit.
Not surprisingly, the blue-ribbon panel concluded that in the long term, CATS will need a dedicated source of funding to survive.
Most transit systems in cities the size of Baton Rouge or larger have such a dedicated transit tax, so the panel’s findings on this point are a no-brainer.
If the blue-ribbon commission can help build wider public support for some form of transit tax, then its work will not have been in vain.
Meanwhile, beyond its major finding on the tax issue, the blue-ribbon commission drew other conclusions that deserve a thorough and thoughtful review by local leaders and residents.
Significantly, the panel proposed the creation of a special taxing district for the transit tax that conveniently excludes the rural, northern part of the parish, where opposition to parishwide taxes historically has been high. Creation of such a district would require the approval of the Legislature before a tax proposal could go before voters. The panel’s proposed timetable would not place a tax plan before voters until at least the fall of 2012.
The panel’s proposed tax plan involves both an estimated quarter-cent sales tax and a 4-mill property tax. Additionally, the panel is recommending that CATS’ governing board operate independently from the Metro Council, which now has final approval over major operating decisions. The panel also suggested requiring that members of CATS’ governing board have a previous background in the issues that frequently come before the board.
We have some misgivings about the creation of tax districts that might further Balkanize parish politics, and we’d have to consider the specific language of any legislation or ballot question on this issue before taking a position.
But we do believe the city-parish’s mass transit system is going to need some kind of dedicated tax for its long-term health. Urban mass transit systems such as Baton Rouge’s aren’t meant to support themselves on fares alone, and this gridlocked community desperately needs transportation alternatives.
Meanwhile, there’s a more pressing question that was beyond the purview of the blue-ribbon panel: What does CATS do to keep its doors open in the short term?
CATS CEO Brian Marshall recently said he’s confident he can find enough money from various sources to avoid a CATS shutdown this year. The blue-ribbon panel’s tax idea, even if it’s embraced by voters, wouldn’t bring any additional money to CATS until 2014.
Stabilizing CATS in the meantime must be a priority for Mayor-President Kip Holden and members of the Metro Council.