The Capital Area Transit System is proposing to end two bus routes, signaling faltering efforts to effectively attract the kind of riders who have the option to drive their own vehicles.
CATS leaders are proposing shutting down two routes this December due to low ridership: the O’Neal Lane Park and Ride and the Mall of Louisiana to downtown Baton Rouge route.
CATS CEO Bob Mirabito was unavailable for an interview but said in a prepared statement that “as a government agency, it is incumbent upon CATS to be responsible stewards of the public dollars that support our service.”
He added, “Making adjustments to rebalance our resources away from underperforming routes and shifting them to higher volume routes is one way of doing this.”
The O’Neal Park and Ride route was a component of the 2012 CATS tax campaign, which promised to offer the kind of reliability and expanded service that would attract what transit leaders called “riders of choice.”
CATS has long been stigmatized with a reputation for being a service of last resort for commuters who can’t afford vehicles.
These tax promises, made before Mirabito was in charge, attracted buy-in from the business community, which supported the tax and campaigned on the benefits of reduced traffic congestion and the economic benefit of offering employees public transit options to get to work.
CATS has reported increases in overall ridership in recent years; however, all of the routes targeting commuters have suffered from low ridership.
The O’Neal Park and Ride allows riders to park their cars at the AMC movie theater at O’Neal Lane and take an express bus downtown in the morning and back to O’Neal in the evening. The route also offered wireless Internet.
The other route proposed for cancellation, from the mall to downtown, is a traditional route.
Both proposed route cuts will have to go before the CATS board and East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council for approval.
CATS offers other routes targeting riders of choice, including the Garden District Trolley and an express route connecting downtown to Baton Rouge Metro Airport.
The O’Neal route averaged 88 rides a month in 2014 and 94 rides a month in 2015. Assuming that a person who rode the route downtown also rode it back, that averages to less than two individual riders per day.
In comparison, the most popular route for CATS, connecting Cortana Mall and Florida Boulevard, had an average of 33,800 rides per month in 2014. The Highland Road route had a monthly average of 18,900 rides.
Amie McNaylor, a spokeswoman for CATS, said in an email that the O’Neal Lane route suffered from heavy traffic.
“It does not help the customer very much if CATS is stuck in the same traffic jam as the rest of the city,” she wrote. “Our on-time performance for the route is currently 52 percent.”
She said the route could better succeed if the city-parish offered high-occupancy lanes for buses. She said the CATS staff doesn’t know why the mall-to-downtown route had such low ridership, at an average of 178 rides per month this year.
The Garden District Trolley and the airport shuttle also have some of the lowest ridership, averaging 437 rides per month and 118 rides per month, respectively.
While the Garden District route is low, McNaylor said, it’s remaining steady and it was put in at the request of the neighborhood association.
“We feel it can be a type of pilot, and if it can be successful, we can implement that in other areas,” she said.
The airport route, which offers Wi-fi, will remain because there are no other bus routes serving the airport, she said.
Last year, CATS received approval to add two more routes targeting riders of choice with a Nicholson Drive route and the LSU Express. However, those routes still haven’t been implemented. Now, McNaylor said, whether that happens hinges on issues related to workforce availability and fleet reliability in addition to unresolved issues with identifying a transit hub in downtown Baton Rouge.
CATS has had success with its Touchdown Express, a shuttle bringing football fans from downtown Baton Rouge to Tiger Stadium on LSU game days. The service attracted 13,211 riders for seven home games last year.
Michael Townes, a Virginia-based transit leader for HNTB Corporation who has previously served as CEO of the Transit District Commission of Hampton Roads, Virginia, said younger professionals in particular represent part of a growing market of people who are looking for alternative transportation options.
Townes, who has visited Baton Rouge, said its status as a college town should allow it to tap into a market serving riders of choice.
He said park-and-ride services are popular and successful in suburban communities, and he implemented one in Hampton Roads. But he said it has to be differentiated to target the ridership. The service offered in Virginia has Wi-fi, luggage racks for briefcases and seats that recline.
To some degree, affluent commuters prefer public transportation that is different than typical bus routes, he said.
“If I’m a commuter, I don’t want to stop at every other corner, I don’t want to hold on to a pole and be crunched in,” he said. “I want comfort and speed, and I want amenities.”
Edgar Cage, a leader with Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based advocacy group that helped campaign for the CATS tax and that grades the agency on its ability to deliver promises, said it’s still imperative that CATS try to attract riders of choice.
But he said the barriers to entry for new riders are numerous because CATS still lacks signs with bus schedule information at stops. The agency has yet to get a handle on its GPS smart phone app Route Shout, which was promised to deliver real-time updates about bus arrivals.
The app was unveiled almost three years ago, but has never consistently worked, despite claims by Mirabito that it’s reasonably functional.
Jared Loftus, a former CATS Board chairman who was integral to the tax campaign, questions whether measures targeting riders of choice are being well managed and effectively marketed.
He said he’s tried to look up the schedule for the Garden District Trolley, but was discouraged to find a lack of clear information about schedules and routes.
“That, for me, is frustrating,” he said. “You’ve got good ideas, but that doesn’t mean you have good execution.”
Loftus said readily available public transportation is important to tourism, noting he just returned from Philadelphia, where he and hundreds of thousands of other people descended to catch a glimpse of the pope.
“I remember thinking, ‘What if we had a big event like this in Baton Rouge? How would our system be able to handle it? Would we be able to?’ ” he said. “The answer is a resounding no. Absolutely not.”