It’s been three years since voters approved a large Capital Area Transit System tax, after promising significantly faster and more reliable service, but the agency is still receiving a mixed review from riders and an accountability group that’s measuring the agency’s progress.
Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based nonprofit organization credited with helping pass the tax, offered CATS its semi-quarterly grade on various categories, with grades ranging from A to F.
“We’re not nearly where we need to be, but at least we have a relationship where accurate information is being shared,” Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge leader, said at a Tuesday evening meeting.
Together Baton Rouge volunteers at the meeting acknowledged some significant improvements, particularly in the important area of faster overall trip times, but they also expressed frustration that three years into a 10-year tax, CATS still had yet to fulfill several promises and was offering the same excuses they have for the past several months.
CATS got its highest mark, an A grade, on shorter overall trip times. Before the tax passed, the average length of a CATS bus trip would take riders 89 minutes to get to their destination. CATS’ goal this quarter was 40 minutes, and the agency self-reported it had hit that goal. Together Baton Rouge volunteers who documented their experiences had an average trip of 43 minutes.
But CATS got poor marks for running on time, for continuing to operate an unreliable GPS system and for providing no signs at bus stops detailing route schedules or even identifying the designated number for the bus stop.
CATS set a goal of running on time 75 percent of the time for this quarter, and reported they were on time 88 percent of the time as of Wednesday, exceeding their stated goal.
However, Together Baton Rouge leaders took issue with the fact that CATS is using a standard that any bus within 10 minutes is considered on time. The industry standard is within five minutes of the scheduled time.
If CATS were using the five-minute standard, Together Baton Rouge said, their volunteer riders were only on time 61 percent of the time.
Cage said CATS’ standard of 10 minutes for on-time buses inflates their real outcomes and sets a low bar for expectations. So CATS was awarded a C for on-time performance.
CATS got an F, its lowest grade, for the lack of signs. CATS CEO Bob Mirabito has previously stated that the routes are still in a state of flux, so they’ve waited to put out signs that they might have to change.
But Broderick Bagert, Together Baton Rouge’s lead organizer, said CATS can always argue that routes could change, and at this point, the lack of information has become a barrier to entry for new riders.
CATS was given a C for its GPS system; however, some riders in the room called that a generous grade, and suggested a D grade.
Since the Route Shout smartphone app was first released, riders have complained it never delivered on its promise to be a real-time display of where buses are and when they will arrive.
Together Baton Rouge’s volunteer riders called it unreliable, but CATS leaders said they have no internal system to evaluate the success of the program.
Mirabito said the board could consider switching to a new program, as he’s said in previous months over criticisms of the software.
But Bagert said the agency’s lack of internal review and continued inaction suggested a “reluctance to solve this problem.”
CATS got mostly high marks for building bus shelters.
The agency promised it would have built 40 new bus shelters by this time. The agency built 30. But they also promised they’d refurbish 35 dilapidated shelters. There, the agency exceeded its goal and finished 89.
CATS has yet to secure a $900,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation and Development that will pave the way for about 60 more shelters.
Mirabito has said for several months the grant money has been held up by the state, but Cage said the excuse is ringing tired after years of waiting.
CATS also received an A for implementing the Google trip planner, as promised, which allows unfamiliar riders to type in their starting point and destination online to get a detailed route plan.
Mirabito also pointed out that CATS ridership has improved 16 percent from September to June of this year, over the same period last year. Revenue for those months has also increased by almost 20 percent.
But he said CATS’ on-time performance is being severely hampered by its aging fleet of buses.
He said they have $25 million worth of needs for capital expenditures over the next four to five years to get their bus fleet where it needs to be.
Together Baton Rouge also took note of concerns about Mirabito’s tense relationships with the union.
Union leaders have in recent months picketed outside CATS headquarters, calling for Mirabito’s resignation and saying he is a poor and disrespectful manager.
It reached a fever pitch during the start of contract negotiations, when Mirabito started a meeting by firing one of the union board members.
“This has become a pitched battle between management and labor, and it’s not a productive and healthy situation,” Bagert said.
Mirabito said negotiations were underway and that he is committed to approving a union contract that mutually beneficial to both sides.