CATS unveils 3-year plan

Capital Area Transit System managers on Wednesday detailed how and when they would deliver bus service goals promised in April's property tax election amid criticism that the implementation plan is long overdue and concerns about its focus.

CATS Chief Executive Officer Brian Marshall has maintained that management is operating with a plan, but had not yet organized it into one document. The 26-page plan presented Wednesday outlines funding, a schedule of bus purchases, and a schedule of service deadlines, including reductions in travel and wait times, broken out by quarter for the next three years.

CATS Board Chairman Isaiah Marshall said he thought the implementation plan was comprehensive enough to satisfy those who have been questioning its existence.

"We can now move away from the conversation that there was no plan to everyone sees that there is a plan," said Isaiah Marshall, no relation to Brian Marshall.

He said the plan would be evaluated by the planning committee, a subcommitee of the CATS board, to determine if there are areas that need improvements.

In recent months, some supporters of the tax plan, including Baton Rouge Area Chamber officials, have become critical of CATS, perceiving that the agency lacks a plan. Two CATS board members, Jared Loftus and Metro Councilman Ryan Heck, also have debated the other board members and management about whether the plan existed.

BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp said Wednesday that he was pleased the plan was released but felt it should have been ready after the election.

"Voters entrusted CATS with additional revenue to create a 21st Century transit system that better serves a growing community," Knapp said in an emailed statement. "It is
disappointing that one year after the tax was passed we are just seeing this critical document."

In April, voters in Baker and Baton Rouge approved a 10.6 mill property tax that more than doubled CATS' budget. The bus system for East Baton Rouge Parish struggled financially for years while trying to secure a permanent source of funding and launched an aggressive campaign promising to deliver ambitious service improvements and expansions.

Residents in Zachary voted against the tax. The tax was not on the ballot in Central.

R.J. Goebel, interim director for the Capital Region Planning Commission, said the
implementation plan presented Wednesday shows that CATS is moving forward aggressively to deliver service goals.

"There's been a lot of negative comments about CATS, but today we saw that a lot of work has been done, it's just wasn't being communicated," Goebel said. "A lot of people today saw that the proof is in the pudding."

David Aguillard, the executive director of Catholic Charities who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission that initiated the tax plan, called the plan a "step in the right direction."

"This should reaffirm for the public and the advocates that things are moving forward," Aguillard said. "But it is disappointing that they're missing some timelines."

According to the plan, CATS will only be able to deliver 25 bus stop shelters by the end of the year, even though it initially promised to deliver 75 by the end of the year.

Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based nonprofit group that helped garner support for the tax, is offering quarterly grades of CATS based on how well the bus system meet deadlines for service goals.

At the meeting, Isaiah Marshall told the CATS board he had been in contact with Together Baton Rouge leaders and informed them of the delay.

When Loftus asked Together Baton Rouge leader Dianne Hanley if the delay was acceptable, she responded, "We want it on schedule."

"What is important to us is that there is complete transparency as objectives are met or are in the process of being met," Hanley said after the meeting. "What is important to us is that the reform objectives are met as close as possible to what was reasonably agreed upon previously, except of course, for some unforeseen major obstacle."

According to the implementation plan, most service goals will be delivered by the first quarter of 2014, including switching routes over to an efficient grid system that will ultimately have the largest
impact on reducing wait times.

After the first quarter in 2013, CATS will still be working to construct bus shelters, and develop express routes. The timeline shows the deadlines for the five express routes are in 2015 and 2016.

The implementation plan calls for a temporary, contracted program manager to oversee the service transition and the hiring of additional staff, including a human resources director and a chief operating officer. The plan also says CATS will focus on improving technology and gathering input from the public about service changes the rest of this year.