CATS reports it will meet some deadlines, miss others

The clock is ticking for the Capital Area Transit System.

Twenty months have passed since voters in Baker and Baton Rouge approved a 10.6-mill property tax to fund the cash-strapped bus system. And those voters were promised a list of specific changes by a self-imposed deadline of March 31.

This past year, work was delayed by controversy and change. And now many of the faces involved with CATS during the tax election were either pushed out or have moved on.

CATS officials say now that the drama has subsided, the agency is stabilizing and moving toward delivering its service promises.

CEO Bob Mirabito said CATS will be delivering the most important component of the service changes — an expanded and more frequent route schedule — but there are some things that just won’t make the deadline.

There were six key promises made in the 2012 election:

Decreasing wait times during peak hours from 75 minutes to 15 minutes.

Adding eight express and limited-stop lines serving the airport, universities and malls.

Offering GPS tracking on the entire fleet, accessible by cellphones.

Providing new shelters and signs at bus stops.

Expanding service from 20 routes to 37 routes.

Providing three new transfer centers, thus reducing the number of buses routed through the Florida Boulevard terminal.

As of early January, it appears few of these will come through as initially promised and on time, based on reports from CATS officials.

CATS will be debuting additional routes, with reduced wait times in March, Mirabito said. This includes the new express and limited stop lines.

But some routes were cut because of the unexpected loss of revenue from the decision to allow the homestead exemption to apply to the tax. The initial budget projections before the election assumed the homestead exemption would not apply.

CATS will deliver 10 new routes instead of 17, and there will be five limited-stop and express routes instead of eight, targeting Baker, Florida Boulevard, Metro Airport, O’Neal Lane and the Mall of Louisiana.

Only three routes will have 15-minute waits during peak times.

CATS is also running behind schedule on the delivery of 100 covered and lit bus shelters, powered by solar panels.

As of November, the first 12 were supposed to be on the streets, but Mirabito said they were delayed because CATS staff lacked the resources to write the necessary request for proposals.

Now that CATS has joined with international transit expert MV Transportation, he said, the process will move forward.

CATS also intends to refurbish 77 old bus shelters, by sandblasting them, replacing Plexiglas windows and wiring them for the same solar panels that will light the new shelters.

The shelters won’t be complete until the last quarter of this year, according to the timeline of work provided by MV Transportation.

The GPS tracking will be working by March, Mirabito said. The dysfunctional tracking system has been released and re-released a handful of times since its initial debut a year ago. Mirabito said the problem with the system is with CATS’ database, and not the company Route Match’s technology. He said each route is now being remapped stop by stop.

The transfer centers also will technically make the deadline.

The Mall of Louisiana, Cortana Mall and an area adjacent to the former Earl K. Long hospital will serve as transfer points, as the new route system has more buses running through these areas for bus changes instead of being funneled to the Florida Boulevard Terminal. The additional transfer points mean routes will be more efficient, shorter and make more sense.

Ultimately, Mirabito said, he’d like each of these locations to have a staffed building where riders can wait, but that could be several more months down the road. Right now, the transfer points are designated by a couple of bus benches.

Within the next few weeks, CATS will roll out its public education campaign to ensure riders know about the changes.

Perry Franklin, a subcontractor with MV Transportation who is leading the effort to reach out to the public, said the effort will be multifaceted and include new schedules, a Web presence and meetings. CATS officials will target employers with large riderships to provide informational sessions.

Marston Fowler, the former CATS president whose term ended this past week, said he thinks CATS will deliver “tangible progress” by the end of March and people will see the difference in service.

“We’re on the right track, and we’ve got some talented people,” he said.

He said voters should continue to hold the agency accountable to its promises and deadlines but should also cut the agency slack for the unanticipated revenue shortage caused by the homestead exemption issue.

“That decision cost us a few million bucks in revenue, so we can only deliver what we can afford,” he said. “It would be unfair to hold them to an $18 million promise.”

Fowler also said he didn’t realize how far behind schedule CATS was on the bus shelters, noting that was an important service priority.

For the first half of last year, faith-based advocacy group Together Baton Rouge held quarterly meetings to ensure CATS was meeting benchmarks agreed upon before the election.

Early on, CATS fell behind on its benchmarks and received poor marks, which initiated pressure on the agency that eventually led to the resignation of then-CEO Brian Marshall.

Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge leader who has been involved with the CATS campaign, said now that CATS has secured its contract with MV and has a new CEO and board in place, the group is ready to bring back a revised report card system.

“The promises made, as far as new improvements, they will be kept, but just maybe not in the same timeline,” Cage said. “We can’t hold the current administration accountable totally to what was promised in the past.”

He said the group will meet in April, after the March 31 deadline, to evaluate how far CATS has come.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” Cage said. “But until the system is delivered, we will continue to work and continue to monitor to make sure the promises are achieved.”