Inside Report: CATS’ future: Less politics, more transit

In the standing-room-only crowd of troubles for the Capital Area Transit System, at least one of the problems should be taken as a positive sign.

That was the quick trip taken to the regional office of the Federal Transit Administration. CATS interim manager Bob Mirabito pleaded the agency’s ignorance about a couple of trips that used CATS buses in ways that violate federal regulations. The trips were before Mirabito came on board and relations with the FTA are good, he reported.

Why is this small fracas a good sign?

It’s that because endless posturing about the bus system by local politicians means less than meets the eye. CATS must meet FTA mandates for level of service offered. The federal subsidies that buy, or help buy, CATS buses come with federal regulations about their use.

The bus system is a whipping post for Metro Council members, not a wholly-owned subsidiary of local government. The bus service cannot be turned into a boutique benefit for particular council members’ districts. That has happened in past years, when the council gave the bus system minimal funding, but then vetoed cuts in routes that were underused.

Once today’s political fights wear themselves out, the CATS board must run a system that meets federal guidelines for service to the working-class neighborhoods heavily dependent on transit service. Given the poor record of the Metro Council on CATS in past years, that federal oversight is really good news.

Something else that has been forgotten in the CATS disputes is that this is a bus system that was almost completely broken down before voters in Baton Rouge and Baker passed a 2012 property tax to improve it.

The CATS organization is not going to be a Rolls-Royce of public transit. With the new property tax, it will be funded at a level significantly below peer cities, from New Orleans down the river to Raleigh in North Carolina. That is what makes so unreasonable the calls for eliminating the property tax.

Without the property tax, the same method that many cities use to fund bus services, the CATS system would be at the mercy of annual contributions from the city-parish general fund. That is matched by some state funding, but the state’s formula was changed two years ago. It put CATS at a disadvantage because there was no major local source of funding. The 10.6-mill property tax makes up the difference, and makes the CATS service financially viable.

A third forgotten, and hopeful, item in the CATS dispute is the road map for its future. That road map already exists, in the FutureBR master plan developed at considerable expense — including some CATS dollars — over the past four years. Public transit is an absolutely irreplaceable component of the transportation plan to ease congestion on Baton Rouge streets.

So a new management of CATS — whether partially a private contractor or as a more-standard public agency — has a strategy for using the taxpayers’ money consistent with a broader mandate for smarter growth in the capital city.

The question is whether the leadership of the city, including pro-transit Mayor-President Kip Holden, can move transit policy beyond the internecine quarrels of the CATS board and the council.

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