Could Uber factor into the future of city buses?

Over the past several months, the Capital Area Transit System has been intensely focused on building four hubs and planning express routes between them. Two hubs are at the former Earl K. Long Hospital and the Cortana Mall. The others will eventually be permanently placed somewhere downtown and in the medical district.

Early next year, express lines — known as bus rapid transit — will begin to run between downtown and the old hospital via Plank Road and between downtown and the mall via Florida Boulevard.

The agency has also applied for federal grant money to connect the medical district to the other hubs, as well as add another rapid transit line down Airline Highway.

Now, leaders are thinking how to get people into those hubs. Local bus lines are likely to play a roll, but there are ideas for new means as well. CATS CEO Bill Deville is interested in bike-sharing programs like the one the Baton Rouge Area Foundation is pursuing. He's also curious about companies like Lyft and particularly Uber.

Uber routinely partners with local transit agencies; just last week it announced a deal with Singapore's light rail system. Deville is unsure what a Baton Rouge arrangement might look like — if, for example, CATS would be able to subsidize rides.

"Those are in the works right now … but we're examining them," he said.

Congressman Garret Graves, a frequent CATS critic, isn't exactly a cheerleader for the agency yet, but the Baton Rouge Republican is encouraged by the changes he's seen. It used to really burn him up, he said, to see empty trolleys driving through the Garden District, on a since-discontinued line.

"The system needs to be based upon demand," he said.

Graves favors a focus on high-capacity routes and without prompting said bikes, cabs and ride-sharing  apps could all help riders get to their bus stops.

"I absolutely think that's the way to go," he said.

Deville also wonders whether CATS might be able to offer park and ride, wherein commuters drive themselves to a stop then take the bus the rest of the way to work. The agency and Graves are also interested whether suburban riders may even consider an interstate bus that brings them in from Livingston, Ascension or West Baton Rouge parishes.

The thinking is that if commuters are going to be stuck in traffic anyway, they might as well take a bus with computer access where they can get some work done.

They all offer the caveat that CATS will have to determine whether people would use those routes first. Chief Operating Officer Rod Goldman said the agency is preparing for an analysis that could lead to some proposed route changes or deletions, though they aren't planning to introduce any proposals any time soon.

Everyone is also waiting to see what becomes of the Downtown-LSU tram. Graves said he isn't sure whether it will be built or not. It came under fire from residents from Scotlandville to St. George who didn't want to see further investment in downtown.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome tabled the tram project earlier this year, saying she wants to see how a tram could fit into broader transportation plan. On Thursday, she said it is "on pause" and noted that her administration has until February to apply for the necessary federal funding. Until then, the city-parish will also have to finish its downtown parking plan and form the taxing district that will provide local funding.

Next month, CATS will release its long-awaited strategic plan, which will guide the agency through the next five years, up to the conclusion of its current property tax.

"We came into a situation where we need to turn this agency around. … In colloquial terms, 'it was a mess,'" said Deville, who took over the agency about a year ago, though he had been the agency's chief revenue office before that.

The strategic plan is mostly an introspective document focused on recruiting talented employees, keeping the agency financially secure and the like, though it is expected to discuss — at least in broad terms — capital improvements that will affect riders.

"It's a first for us. … For the board, it's really a road map for the next three to five years," said CATS chairman Jim Brandt.

Asked if the plan would discuss stockpiling money or otherwise preparing for the possible failure of CATS's tax renewal, Brandt said it doesn't address that contingency. Rather, the plan assumes people will recognize the agency is improving and providing a good return on investment.

He said he is especially interested in looking at ways to expand rapid transit, continuing to buy electric buses and smaller vehicles, and considering ride-sharing and bike-sharing partnerships.

Erika Green, who represents the Metro Council on the CATS board, said the agency is improving, and she's also hopeful the new rapid transit lines will be a success.

"The wait time is the issue," she said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.