CATS gets glowing grades, but major updates still needed

Back on April 21, 2012, a bus trip from the Sherwood Forest/Coursey Boulevard area to downtown Baton Rouge took 2 hours and 15 minutes — and that wasn’t unusual.

The Capital Area Transit System and the nonprofit Together Baton Rouge set a goal of cutting that commute to 75 minutes.

CATS met that goal, and then some. On Monday, that trip took an average of 47 minutes, according to an Accountability Report Card issued by Together Baton Rouge.

That’s one of the reasons CATS received glowing reviews from Together Baton Rouge, which meets a few times a year to grade the transit system. CATS also was lauded Monday for building new hubs and increasing routes.

Nevertheless, officials with both the agency and the nonprofit say there is still much work to be done. The biggest need, CATS CEO Bob Mirabito said, will be replacing 45 of the system’s 66 buses.

CATS received an A- overall from the 30 attendees at Monday’s CATS Accountability Night at the Star Hill Baptist Church on North Foster Drive. The grade was based on the goals CATS and Together Baton Rouge set to improve the transit system.

“I was pleased,” Mirabito said after the meeting. “I think an A- was generous. I still think we have a ways to go to improve our performance.”

Looking ahead, Mirabito spoke of the possibility of expanding into neighboring parishes and bidding on the LSU busing contract.

Mirabito also promised to make major system changes twice a year, July and November, going forward.

The changes this year include possibly adding a limited-stop route on Nicholson Drive from L’Auberge Hotel and Casino to downtown and improving the time between buses running the route in Scotlandville.

“This is a living system; it will continue to change,” Mirabito said.

The faith-based Together Baton Rouge has worked to hold CATS officials accountable since the passage of a controversial CATS tax, the 10.6-mill property tax passed in March 2012, that the group publicly supported.

The report card has six items CATS promised to improve upon by April 1 of this year. In addition to adding hubs and reducing trip times for most of its 30 routes, CATS added five express and limited-stop routes, five new traditional service routes, improved on-time departures and improved arrival/departure information.

This was the first accountability meeting since the new route structure was introduced in the spring.

The promise to build more shelters and improve signage was on the report card, but it was not graded because CATS has until Dec. 31 to make those improvements.

The report card notes CATS hit its goal of having 75 percent of the departures leave on time for 22 of 30 routes, not including the downtown trolley. The definition for arriving on time is being from one minute early to 10 minutes late, Mirabito said.

“We have seen significant improvement,” Edgar Cage, a leader with Together Baton Rouge, told attendees. “But we expect, anticipate and will demand that these percentages constantly go up.”

Mirabito said he was not happy that eight of the routes did not arrive on time at least 75 percent of the time.

A major impediment to future changes is the overall age and frailty of the bus fleet, Mirabito said.

Since CATS added the extra routes earlier this year, about seven buses break down daily, up from three to four before the increased routes. Mirabito said they had more than 190 breakdowns in July alone, compared with 503 in 2013.

He said the average lifespan of a bus is 12 years. Using that number, 45 of the 66 buses either should be retired or are due for retirement in the next few years, including 12 built in 1997 that have more than 750,000 miles on them.

New buses cost $450,000 to $500,000 apiece, Mirabito said, adding that CATS has applied for a federal grant to purchase 45 new buses.

Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter, @ryanmbroussard.