Cuts affect promises made regarding tax
For months, the prevailing story about the parish bus system has been dysfunction among its board members and attacks by the some members of the East Baton Rouge Metro Council.
But behind the curtain of the political drama, Bob Mirabito — hired as interim chief executive officer in early June — has been leading his staff to effect real changes that he says will translate into better service.
Mirabito is picking up where former CEO Brian Marshall left off, and said he’s doing his best to deliver the service expansion and improvements by March — as was originally promised. But he’s also delivering a dose of hard reality for the voters of Baton Rouge.
Mirabito puts it bluntly: CATS is receiving 20 percent less money than expected while campaigning for the tax. Therefore, CATS cannot deliver on every promise it made in the election by its self-imposed deadline of March.
Ahead of the CATS tax last year, CATS passed out hundreds of push cards containing specific promises if the tax passed. The promises included decreasing wait times for buses from 75 minutes to 15 minutes at peak times, expanding service from 19 routes to 37 routes and creating eight new express and limited stop lines.
Mirabito is about to go to the public with the proposed plans for 2014. The new route map includes only 28 total routes, and only three of those routes will have 15 minute wait times. Those routes will be on Plank Road, Foster Drive and North Acadian Thruway. He said seven routes will have 30-minute wait times during peak hours.
Also, there will be five limited and express routes instead of eight, targeting Baker, Florida Boulevard, Metro Airport, O’Neal Lane and the Mall of Louisiana.
“I was not part of selling CATS or selling this tax,” Mirabito said.
He noted the CATS tax plan was based on a $30 million budget, with the assumption the tax would pass in the city of Zachary, as well as in Baton Rouge and Baker. The plan also assumed the state’s homestead exemption provisions did not apply.
Both assumptions turned out to be wrong.
“There’s $6 million less available than what was originally expected, so that meant a 20 percent cut in the number of hours supported by our operating budget,” he said. “What you’re seeing is a dollar-for-dollar cut.”
While wait times may not be as frequent as promised, Mirabito said route redesigns will shorten trip times, reduce the number of bus transfers, and get people to their destinations quicker.
CATS Board President Marston Fowler said CATS, in retrospect, should have softened its language in the promises made to taxpayers.
In addition to the assumption that the tax would pass in all three cities and the homestead exemption would apply, CATS also assumed it would continue to get a city-parish contribution of $3 million. He said the agency never publicly entertained adjustments that would have to be made if any of those funding sources was omitted.
“My problem is in how our communication with the public went. We shouldn’t have assumed we were going to get everything,” Fowler said. “With that said, I still think people are going to be pleased and that we’re going to make a substantial amount of progress.”
Fowler said that he thinks there’s more opportunities in the future to receive additional federal grants, so while all of the service promises may not be fulfilled in 2014, service will continue to grow in the coming years.
CATS advocates who have been holding the agency’s feet to the fire over service promises in recent months seem understanding of the adjustments that had to be made to the proposed plans.
“We realize that the broad plans made over a year ago may require some adjustments, but we will continue to push for adherence to those plans to the fullest extent that’s practical,” said David Aguillard, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Transit Coalition.
The transit coalition was involved in the tax campaign before the April 2012 vote and has served as a watchdog over the agency in recent months.
Agullard said after a bus tax passed in Lexington, Ky., it took about three years for the changes to take effect, which he felt was reasonable.
“What we’ve been concerned about is that it seemed the initial steps and initial decisions that will shape where we want to be two years from now were missteps,” Aguillard said. “But now we’re seeing forward steps.”
So what is CATS doing with its $24-million-a-year budget?
The system is hiring more drivers, raising the pay of its staff, putting in more bus shelters, adjusting routes, adding transfer points, buying more buses and improving its technology to provide the public with better service.
Later this month, CATS will host public meetings to get public feedback on route changes that aim to make them more efficient, reducing travel times. They also will reach some underserved parts of the parish including O’Neal Lane.
The route changes will go to the Metro Council for approval in October.
As promised, CATS is planning to add more bus transfer locations at the Mall of Louisiana, Cortana Mall, North Boulevard Town Square, and the former Earl K. Long hospital. CATS has already purchased its first 12 bus shelters, which will have solar panels to provide lighting. There are plans to purchase 100 shelters.
Mirabito is also hiring 70 new bus operators, doubling the current driving staff.
CATS has also ordered 12 new buses that will begin arriving in January. The 16 new vans purchased earlier this year that accommodate 16 passengers each, are being equipped with GPS technology and will be on the streets soon, Mirabito said.
CATS also promised to add GPS tracking for the fleet with exact arrival times accessible on smart phones, something managers had trouble achieving through the much-criticized Route Match program they have been using.
“Route Match is better than it was, but it still has some issues both from our stand point and from the vendor standpoint,” he said, adding that the software requires labor intensive data entry. “We’re making progress and fixing it.”
In recent months, the union representing CATS workers also negotiated a raise for bus operators and maintenance workers. Mirabito also assessed each of his 170 employees, moving some into different positions and giving raises to administrative employees.
He increased his administrative payroll budget, which includes everyone but union workers, from $2,203,568 to $2,507,822, not counting his own salary which is set by the board. He also created some new administrative positions that will ultimately expand the budget to $2,863,582.
And on Friday, CATS unveiled its second attempt at a request for proposals for a project management firm that will provide consulting and transit management assistance. The first attempt to award the contract was tossed by the CATS board after public outcry that the process was tainted to favor one company over the others.
This time the contract includes more management positions, such as a chief operations officer and a route scheduler, and it will last approximately two years instead of 18 months. Together Baton Rouge leaders, a faith-based organization which has been attempting to hold CATS accountable to voters, say they are also encouraged by the work being done under Mirabito.
“I would describe our assessment as cautiously optimistic. From a board and management perspective, we think we’re finally in a position to start seeing less political grandstanding and more service improvements,” said the Rev. Lee T. Wesley, a Together Baton Rouge co-founder.
“We’re encouraged by the direction of the new RFP, which will bring a range of professional expertise to the system. And we’re looking forward to the community meetings on the new route structure.”