Inside Report: CATS wants to replace faulty buses

By Rebekah Allen

Advocate staff writer

W hen Brian Marshall took over as chief executive officer of the Capital Area Transit System in 2010, he says he inherited a fleet of broken buses that has affected the agency’s overall ability to deliver reliable service.

The newer-looking purple, blue and yellow CATS buses were purchased about six years ago from Blue Bird Corp., and make up about 40 percent of the overall fleet.

But Marshall said these buses cost almost twice as much to maintain than the other buses in the fleet — many of which are 10 years older than the Blue Bird buses.

The other buses were purchased from Gillig Corp.

He said the Blue Bird buses were poorly constructed, and maintenance workers have had to build parts and reinforce the floors of the buses. He said the buses’ windshield washer reservoirs were connected within the buses with a bungee cord.

About half of the Blue Bird buses, Marshall said, have had their engines repaired, while most buses shouldn’t require an engine replacement until after 10 years of service.

The Blue Bird buses need oil changes every 2,000 miles, compared to the other buses, which get oil changes every 6,000 miles, he said.

Marshall said CATS owes about $3 million to the bank to pay on its lease-purchase of the buses. He said CATS can’t sue or renegotiate its contract because that division of Blue Bird Corp. shut down shortly after CATS got the faulty buses.

So he’s been asking the federal government for grant money to replace the buses.

Last year, CATS was awarded $5.2 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation. He applied for $20 million.

CATS is purchasing 15 large vans and 12 new buses, with these funds expected to arrive by the end of the year.

He said typically this grant isn’t awarded to the same city two years in a row, but he’s been appealing to federal transit officials in Washington, D.C., to consider another, larger allocation for CATS this year.

“Our conditions have changed so drastically,” Marshall said. “We asked for $20 million and didn’t receive it all, but overall, our needs have increased because of the tax.”

The 10.6-mill property tax passed for CATS last April in Baton Rouge and Baker expanded the capital needs because it allows the bus system to expand its service footprint, he said.

Marshall said the grant, which is only for capital needs, would free up more of the local tax revenue for operations.

This year, Marshall requested $40 million of federal grant money to pay the remainder of the Blue Bird lease-purchase and allow CATS to purchase more new buses.

The grant would also allow the CATS administration to expand its business office, maintenance building and parking lot on Florida Boulevard to accommodate its planned expansion in service.

Earlier in March, Marshall said, he traveled to Washington, D.C., seeking letters of support from U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.

Marshall said CATS needs to replace the Blue Bird buses to improve the agency’s reliability and efficiency.

“The total breakdowns on the road of 150 a year, that number will reduce significantly to 20 to 25 a year,” he said.

And that, he said, should reduce the agency’s higher-than-normal maintenance budget.

He said the Blue Bird buses cost about $18,000 a year per bus to maintain, compared to the other buses, which cost $10,000 a year per bus.

Rebekah Allen covers East Baton Rouge city-parish government. She can be reached at rallen@theadvocate.com or you can follow her on Twitter @rebekahallen.