Along for the ride
Metro Council members John Delgado and Buddy Amoroso have had a lot to say about the Capital Area Transit System in recent months, and not much of it was nice. But neither has much experience actually using local public transportation.
Amoroso had never ridden a CATS bus before, and Delgado said the last time he rode the bus was as a student at LSU several years ago. But on Wednesday the two CATS critics embarked on a journey from Sherwood Forest and Coursey Boulevard to City Hall via the bus system to develop a more well-rounded opinion.
“I can’t really just go out there and say, ‘This system doesn’t work’ without riding it myself and putting my money where my mouth is,” Delgado said.
“I want to find out what’s good, what’s bad and what’s in between.”
Delgado and Amoroso have been among the Metro Council’s more vocal critics of the CATS board as it has been mired in a series of controversies involving alleged theft of funds, missing farebox money and the use of questionable procedures for contract awards.
The two council members have sponsored a handful of CATS-related ordinances and resolutions aimed at improving accountability at the agency. One resolution by Amoroso, ultimately tabled, was to ask that all nine CATS board members resign.
Amoroso also sponsored and got passed an ordinance creating a board to vet CATS board applicants and a list of suggested board qualifications.
Delgado, meanwhile, is asking the Metro Council to support a resolution urging the state Legislature to dissolve CATS, which would repeal the 10.6-mill CATS tax.
If that happened, it would pave the way for the Metro Council to take control of the agency and eventually contract out its operations to a private firm.
Amoroso said he would support the nonbinding measure, which comes up for a vote to the council Wednesday.
For their excursion Wednesday, Delgado met Amoroso at Amoroso’s Sherwood Forest home at 11 a.m. Their goal was to make it to City Hall downtown for a 1 p.m. meeting. Delgado wore dress pants and a long-sleeved shirt; Amoroso sported a straw hat. The two were armed with smartphones and an iPad to help them navigate as well as document their trip on social media.
Waiting for their first bus, Delgado explained he voted for the CATS tax in April but no longer feels CATS as currently structured is capable of providing better service for the parish.
“If you’re dealing with a system that has absolutely failed, and I believe CATS is an absolute failure, you have to be willing to take a risk,” Delgado said. “The only thing we can do is change direction.”
If CATS were to be dissolved by the state, the public bus system would lose its tax money. Amoroso said the city-parish could potentially seek a smaller parishwide millage to support transit.
He said he voted against the tax because he felt the taxing district was gerrymandered, but thought it could get support from voters if it were more fairly drawn.
The bus ride, including the waits at bus stops, took longer than two hours and required two bus transfers.
The two expected late arrivals and empty buses, but they were only half right. While one bus they rode was nearly empty, the other two were more than half full. The buses were only about 5 minutes late from their advertised arrival times, but the GPS software called Route Shout that CATS officials have said is supposed to be up and running, proved useless.
Interim CEO Bob Mirabito, who had made public statements in recent weeks that the Route Shout program was fully functional, acknowledged Wednesday that the software is still not working properly.
During their journey, Amoroso and Delgado talked to several riders to gauge their satisfaction with the system.
Stephanie Dillard waited for a bus with the two councilmen sitting on a bench at Florida Boulevard and Forest Oak Drive. The stop had no shelter, unlike the previous one. Dillard had a dry, white washcloth with her to wipe her sweat as she waited for a bus to take her to Wal-Mart, telling the councilmen that she wished the stop had a cover to provide some shade.
Terri Penny, a Virginia College student, told the councilmen she’s been riding the bus since she was 12 years old, and has seen a lot of improvement.
“All it needs is a little tweaking,” Penny said.
Mirabito said he appreciated that the councilmen took the time to experience public transit first hand. He said under new planned routes for 2014, the same trip would require only one bus transfer and would last about an hour and a half.
“I hope they reach out and tell me what their experience is like,” Mirabito said. “If there are suggestions they want to make, I’m open.”
Amoroso and Delgado made it downtown by 1:20 p.m., sweaty from waiting for buses in the hot sun.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask a working person to give up four hours of their day to commute back and forth,” Amoroso said.
He said he was pleasantly surprised by the polite bus drivers, the clean and air-conditioned buses and the number of people on the buses.
“It was not as bad as I thought, but it wasn’t good,” Delgado added at the end of the trip. “It makes me that much more determined to provide the people that are dependent on this system with a better system.”
See video here.