CATS leaders chided for missing deadlines

Leaders of the Capital Area Transit System were put on the defensive Monday night for missing most of their self-imposed quarterly deadlines for improvements, which included adding bus shelters, implementing a functional GPS system and reducing wait times at 13 designated routes.

Brian Marshall, the CATS chief executive officer, and two CATS board members, Chairman Isaiah Marshall — no relation — and Dalton Honore’ II, defended the agency’s work Monday night to Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based nonprofit that is grading CATS quarterly on bus service improvements promised during the April 2012 tax election.

The CATS officials stressed that they would not be rushed to make decisions in haste just to receive good grades from Together Baton Rouge.

Together Baton Rouge leaders noted that the deadlines were set by the CATS staff and board before the election.

At a Together Baton Rouge meeting last year that drew 1,000 people, CATS board members pledged to adhere to the benchmarks set by the group in order to hold themselves accountable to taxpayers.

Brian Marshall said after the meeting that while he did help set the deadlines, circumstances arose that changed the timeline.

“We’re finding ways to do the right thing,” Marshall said. “If we take a second look and realize we can do better, then that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

He said the performance of CATS leaders in the most recent evaluation does not mean CATS will continue to miss deadlines. He said he had no doubt CATS would meet its ultimate deadline of reforming the entire system by early 2014.

This quarter, CATS promised to reduce wait times to an average of 19 minutes on 13 routes by putting more buses on the routes.

The average wait times before the tax election for the 13 routes was 52 minutes at peak hours, and CATS reduced it to 31 minutes at peak hours. CATS reached its individual goals for three of the 13 routes — in Scotlandville, Plank Road and College Drive.

Brian Marshall said staff ultimately decided not to put additional buses to some of the routes that had been promised in the report card because the level of ridership did not support adding additional buses. He said CATS is not trying to add ridership until a more significant overhaul of the routes is completed, which will make the bus system more palatable to potential riders.

But Together Baton Rouge leaders argued that CATS also promised to improve service to current riders and said adding buses to the routes as promised would have cut the wait times.

CATS also promised to add 10 new bus shelters as of March 31, but CATS did not add any bus shelters. Ultimately, CATS is expected to add 75 new covered bus shelters with improved signage to provide for a better overall bus experience. Many of the current stops are just a CATS sign on a post, without even a bench.

Isaiah Marshall said CATS was prepared to put the shelter project out for bid but realized there was no comprehensive plan for shelter placement.

“Would we have met this goal? Yes. But it would not have been in a way that was comprehensive,” he said.

Asked by Together Baton Rouge leaders when the shelters would be in place, Honore’ said they would be in place by the beginning of next year after new routes are selected.

CATS also drew fire for deficiencies in the global positioning system that was to provide riders with “exact arrival times” for buses.

Together Baton Rouge asked 38 people to ride buses and record their experience using Route Shout, the smart phone GPS app for CATS, and of them, only 12 people said the GPS tracking was within 4 minutes of when their bus actually arrived.

Isaiah Marshall admitted the GPS system was an example of CATS making a poor decision in racing to meet a deadline.

“We went out too early with it. It was a bad decision,” he said. “It was in haste. But that’s not something that will be repeated.”

For adding vehicles and reducing wait times for the 13 routes, CATS received a grade of C. For the GPS bus tracking, CATS received a C for installing it on time, but an F for customer experience. CATS received an F for failing to install the bus shelters, but an A for purchasing additional vehicles for planned routes. CATS also received a C on providing clear and transparent information.

Metro Councilman Ryan Heck, who is also a CATS board member, criticized the board’s performance after the meeting.

“In my brief time as a CATS board member, I have learned that the biggest obstacle to successful public transit is the unwillingness of the current CATS board to make the necessary changes in order to right the ship over at CATS,” Heck said.

Together Baton Rouge was an integral influence in the April 2012 property tax election, waging an aggressive campaign that assisted in the passage of 10.6-mill property tax to reform the bus system.