CATS service criticized

Members of the faith-based advocacy group Together Baton Rouge criticized Capital Area Transit System officials Monday night, giving them a failing grade for communicating with the public.

The criticisms came in a quarterly public meeting that Together Baton Rouge held with CATS to deliver a series of grades for hitting certain benchmarks in service.

CATS received a C-minus grade overall.

“It wasn’t a good month, the public relations were terrible,” Together Baton Rouge’s Edgar Cage told CATS CEO Brian Marshall and board President Jared Loftus.

Cage later called the bus system’s communication efforts over the past moth “a complete and absolute failure.”

The criticism stemmed from court testimony last month by CATS Chief Financial Officer Gary Owens.

Owens said in court that due to lower anticipated revenue, CATS would only be able to offer two express or “limited stop” routes beginning in 2014, which is six fewer than the eight promised in the run-up to the CATS tax election in April. Voters in Baton Rouge and Baker approved a 10.6-mill property tax to bolster the bus system in that election.

Owens’ testimony came during a hearing in a lawsuit filed by Cajun Industries Executive Milton Graugnard that challenged the legality of the CATS election.

Marshall said Monday night that CATS plans to offer seven of the eight promised routes. The eliminated route is the Gardere-to-LSU route, and reasons for its elimination relate directly to the lawsuit, he said.

Loftus said that when the hearing was held, route-planning was still ongoing.

“There was a communication issue,” he said. “A lot of things have changed.”

Since the court hearing, reports from a route consultant hired by CATS have come in and showed that they could still have the seven routes, he said.

What Owens testified were “rough drafts of things that were going on,” Loftus said.

Cage said the low grade should act as a wake-up call to CATS officials.

“We are very upset with the way communications were handled,” he told Marshall and Loftus. “The promises you made ... we are going to hold you to it.”

Cage concluded “We don’t want just talk. We want action.”

Marshall said he respected the communication grade, though he didn’t think it was fair.

“We know there’s a lot of work to do,” he said.

Together Baton Rouge also requested that CATS add more information to its website, including lists of on-times arrivals of its buses.

The site needs a “wholesale redesign,” Brod Bagert of Together Baton Rouge said.

In a written document, Together Baton Rouge said CATS’ current website is difficult to navigate and provides little in the way of relevant information.

“This lack of information accessible directly through CATS leaves the public in the dark about the building of a new transit system to which that public gave such a resounding vote of confidence earlier this year,” the document says.

Together Baton Rouge provided a list of ways to upgrade the website, including adding financial reports, a list of on-time arrivals, maps showing potential expansions and plans for transit reform.

Loftus agreed with Together Baton Rouge’s assessment of CATS website.

“That website has been the bane of my existence since I have been on the board,” Loftus said.

Marshall said CATS would handle any website upgrades with its in-house IT department.

In other areas, Together Baton Rouge gave CATS two A grades, for continuing service through 2012 and for attending the fourth quarter accountability meeting. They also gave CATS an incomplete grade for another objective: the purchase of vehicles for route expansions on O’Neal Lane, Essen-Bluebonnet, Lee Drive and in the Terrace-Thomas Delpit areas.