Inside Report: Amid wreckage of a coalition, new challenges

by lanny keller

The 2012 election cycle saw big victories for public transportation across the country, not just here, where voters in Baton Rouge and Baker approved a landmark property tax dedicated to the Capital Area Transit System.

Transit think-tanks tallied more than 40 major transportation projects approved by voters from California to Maine. In California, where two of the ballot propositions lost, the two items carried a majority of votes for raising taxes for transportation. The referendums, though, required a two-thirds vote and thus fell short of enactment.

While the different proposals — from buses in Baton Rouge to light-rail in Los Angeles and the Research Triangle in North Carolina — are for different aspects of public transit, there is a common thread in the types of political coalitions that come together to back transit.

Community leadership is necessary to pass the often contentious taxes to back transit. Key elements include the planners who provide not only the ideas and vision for public transportation, but the numbers that justify the investments.

Another key element is the business community. Again and again, as Geoff Anderson of Smart Growth America noted in a Baton Rouge talk during the 2012 transportation debates, the need for a workforce transportation alternative has mobilized the business leadership of cities across America for public transit. Business often allies with transit-worker unions in coalitions in many cities.

One new element in Baton Rouge was the powerful door-to-door advocacy of Together Baton Rouge, the coalition of congregations and community organizations that helped to push the CATS millage. But those kinds of organizations have also rallied to transit elsewhere; the Baton Rouge Area Chamber also took a vital leadership role here, as in other cities.

The main reason that Baton Rouge is different: A staggeringly quick alienation of transit’s constituencies.

CATS board infighting fueled the ouster of CEO Brian Marshall, and then there was inept leadership of the board by Chairman Isaiah Marshall. No relation, except in capacity to breed disappointment and disillusionment among the transit’s allies.

The problems were known in CATS, long battered by budget cuts and poor leadership from the Metro Council, now posturing about transit because of the disarray at CATS.

That is why BRAC and other transit allies pushed a governance reform bill in the 2012 Legislature as a follow-up to transit funding. Unfortunately, that bill was vetoed — after passing House and Senate — on a spurious pretext by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

It was a rare case of Jindal injecting himself into a local issue when sponsors of the bill, including many of his own business allies, had thought the administration’s concerns with the bill had been met during the process. That set up the crisis of the Marshalls, and with a Metro Council eager to gain more control of an agency now funded with a dedicated tax, the danger of politics poisoning the prospects of public transit are if anything greater.

This is more than just a record-setting disassembling of the transit coalition in Baton Rouge. It is a test of the community’s capacity to overcome internal divisions and make a needed public service work.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.