Local transit advocates buoyed at conference

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Capital Area Transit System buses line the terminal at Florida and 22nd streets in 2012.
Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Capital Area Transit System buses line the terminal at Florida and 22nd streets in 2012.

Local public transportation advocates searching for inspiration could find it by looking west to El Paso.

The West Texas city’s system was in shambles just a few short years ago, but is now in the midst of a major investment program that has doubled ridership and has the local transit authority building a new operations and maintenance facility, creating bus rapid transit routes and eyeing a new streetcar line.

The latter two, rapid transit along major arteries such as Florida Boulevard and a streetcar for Nicholson Drive, are initiatives eyed by FutureBR, Baton Rouge’s recent overhaul of its master plan.

As for El Paso, “we were imploding,” Jay Banasiak, director of Sun Metro in El Paso, told an audience at the Center for Planning Excellence’s annual Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge.

Banasiak estimated ridership in El Paso was at about 10 million per year, half of what it is expected to grow to next year.

He said the mayor and city manager made public transportation a “top three” priority in the latter half of the last decade. The move insulated Sun Metro from political pressure by privatizing its management and brought in Banasiak, who added “economic opportunity” to its mission statement.

“Ever since then it’s been pedal to the metal,” he said.

Ridership is now at 17 million and on the rise as rapid transit lines — linear bus routes that bring in people from outlying areas into and out of the city quickly — are created and Sun Metro eyes $90 million state funding for a streetcar line, Banasiak said. Sun Metro has four of eight new transfer centers completed, he said.

El Paso’s system is larger than Baton Rouge’s — a budget of $60 million compared with $12 million — but Banasiak summed up its philosophy thusly:

“If we can’t do it first-class, we’re probably not going to do it,” he said.

El Paso’s transfer stations offer WiFi, a concession stand, real-time digital display of arrival and departure times, and other amenities. Stops are lit and landscaped and the latest buses run until 1 a.m.

The 60-foot buses arrive every 10 minutes, the stops are about a mile apart and traffic lights will stay green longer if the bus is approaching, Banasiak said.

The system’s reliability is now at about 98 percent, Banasiak said.

Banasiak said Sun Metro is funded by a half-cent sales tax but gets state and federal funding by having plans and partnerships ready. It is planning a $5 million conversion of an abandoned mall to the northwest of the city into a transfer center. The agency will put in the streets, transit station, parks and other public infrastructure with $5 million before bringing in developers to build out the 40-acre site, he said.

Banasiak said the project has piqued the interest of the Federal Transit Administration, not to mention private interests.

“There are a lot of developers, believe it or not, interested in developing this land,” he said.

Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence, said the recent voter approval of a property tax in Baton Rouge and Baker to permanently fund the Capital Area Transit System could start to improve the system and increase ridership in ways that could make things like rapid transit and FutureBR’s plans for a streetcar line along Nicholson possible.

Florida Boulevard has been identified as a corridor in which bus rapid transit could be used to bring workers in and out of downtown. A street car on Nicholson has been targeted as a way to connect LSU and downtown while encouraging development along the corridor and increasing land values.

CPEX formed the Connect coalition to advocate for public transportation and mass transit in East Baton Rouge Parish. The 10.6-mill property tax is expected to generate about $18 million annually for CATS.

Speaker Roger Millar of Smart Growth America, who spent 15 years in Portland while the city turned the empty railyard into the vibrant Pearl District, said the streetcar there played a major role in spurring development.

When the streetcar first went in, Millar said Portland State University didn’t want to have anything to do with it, but “got religion” pretty quickly on finding ways to get people to the university without automobiles.

Portland told the university, in effect, “Would you rather build a parking garage or a research facility,” Millar said. “They came to us with the money and we put in the line.”

Using planning and transit, Millar said Portland “moved the people of Portland and the real estate development community a long way in a short period of time.”

He said the Pearl District generated 15,000 new residential units around the streetcar line.

Millar urged the audience to ditch the “Nome (Alaska) to Key West syndrome,” which he said stops a lot of public transportation projects.

“Pick a phase and get that phase done,” he said.

Jason King, a planner with Dover, Kohl & Partners who spoke about El Paso’s master plan, noted that transit is “really just a way to connect two walkable places.”