Capital Area Transit System officials are now saying they might not be able to deliver on some promises made ahead of the April tax election because revenues are coming in short of what they had projected.
Gary Owens, chief financial officer, disclosed during a court hearing Monday that CATS can only afford to add two of the eight limited stop routes promised during the campaign. He also said the frequency of some buses on routes would be less than what had been projected.
During their campaign to persuade voters to support a 10.6-mill property tax, CATS officials promised to deliver expanded and improved service. Among specific promises, were the addition of eight new express and limited stop lines, “serving the airport, universities, malls and other areas.”
Owens said six of the eight express routes are off the table indefinitely.
CATS also promised to decrease wait times from 75 minutes to 15 minutes at peak hours. Owens said in an interview Tuesday that peak hours and the most heavily used routes will still have 15-minute waits, but some lesser-used routes may see fewer service improvements.
Owens said CATS won’t be able to deliver on those promises is because the agency expects to receive about $6.6 million less in total budget revenue than initially projected.
CATS projected it would generate about $18 million with the passage of the tax in Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary. Combined with its other revenue sources of state, local and federal funds, CATS built its promises around the expectation it would have a budget of $30 million.
But Owens said CATS expects to lose the city-parish’s annual contribution of $3 million per year, plus a $600,000 contribution from the parish transportation fund.
The remaining $3 million revenue loss is due to other factors, including the failure of the tax in Zachary, which translated into a loss of $1.1 million in anticipated tax revenue, Owens said. In addition, the tax was found after the election to be subject to homestead exemption, which shields the first $75,000 of assessed property value, and that also means less revenue for CATS than anticipated, he said.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said the Mayor’s Office is still preparing its budget for 2013 and could not comment on specific budget allocations, including whether the proposed budget will include any subsidy for CATS.
However, CATS Board President Jared Loftus said CATS has not been invited to submit a budget proposal as it has in previous years when funding for it was included in the budget.
Several Metro Council members, who have the final say over the mayor’s budget, publicly stated ahead of the election that they would be against subsidizing CATS from the city-parish’s general funds budget if voters approved the tax.
Officials with Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based advocacy group that helped campaign in favor of the tax and has charged itself with holding CATS accountable for fulfilling its promises, say they are disappointed with the developments.
Edgar Cage, co-chairman of Together Baton Rouge’s transit team, said in a statement: “It’s understandable that the loss in revenue would result in some changes to the transit reform plan. But the wholesale elimination of nearly all express and limited stop routes? That’s not acceptable.”
He said Together Baton Rouge hoped to work with the CATS board and staff to “get into the weeds with the numbers they’re looking at.”
Loftus said the CATS board is also concerned but has only recently been briefed about the changes. He said the CATS board has not approved its budget or service changes for next year, but suggested that while the express service may be eliminated for a certain route, it could still be serviced with regular bus lines.
Loftus also said that the agency can only reasonably deliver on promises it can afford.
“It’s completely rational that when you tell people that something costs one thing, and then you don’t have that money you said you needed to do that, then you can’t provide those services,” he said.
Loftus said CATS has always received a city-parish stipend, and CATS officials have voiced concerns to the Mayor’s Office and the Metro Council that they need the money to fulfill their promises.
Other promises CATS made that officials are moving forward with include adding GPS tracking to the fleet, adding bus shelters, benches and signs at bus stops, expanding from 19 to 37 routes, and adding three new transfer centers and building a more efficient grid route system.
The city-parish’s contribution could prove to be even more important to CATS, if the agency loses a lawsuit filed by a businessman that seeks to invalidate the election results.
Milton Graugnard, a Cajun Industries executive, sued CATS more than three months after the election, calling it unconstitutional because residents outside the city limits will benefit from service, while only city residents will be taxed.
The case was heard in state court this week, and a judge is expected to issue a ruling by next week.
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