C.A.T.S. bus system changes start March 30

With a little more than a week until the parish bus system switches to a new route structure with an overhauled bus schedule, Capital Area Transit System officials say the public is about to be inundated by a campaign to make sure riders are educated about the changes.

The new routes and schedules will go live March 30. They are the cornerstone of the expanded and speedier service promised by CATS when it asked voters to approve a dedicated property tax in 2012.

CATS CEO Bob Mirabito said the agency spent about $100,000 toward public outreach in recent weeks to buy TV and newspaper ads and to print thousands of schedules and route maps for riders.

He said he’s reached out to groups like Rotary Club, Forum 35 and Kiwanis as well as sending emails to the various neighborhood associations to spread the word.

An aggressive media campaign will be unleashed next week in the form of commercials, ads and interviews on TV and radio.

CATS will also be training volunteers to serve as “ambassadors” stationed at the terminal and new transfer hubs, as well as on buses, fielding questions from riders about routes and destinations.

“We’re going to be like the red coats at the airports when you step off the plane, telling you how to get to the next place,” said Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge leader. The faith-based advocacy group, which has been entrenched with CATS since the tax was passed, is helping organize the ambassador effort.

Cage said he expects Together Baton Rouge will be able to attract about 40 volunteers to be trained at Shiloh Baptist Church at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Anyone who wants to volunteer is welcome to attend.

Mirabito said CATS administrative staff and operations staff are also being trained to provide assistance to customers. He said there will be close to 100 people available to answer questions during the first few weeks of the service rollout.

The new routes and schedules are already online at www.brcats.com. The old website, which customers often complained lacked information and functionality, is in the process of being revamped. In the meantime, the site has a temporary splash screen that directs riders to new route schedules.

Mirabito said he advises riders who have Internet access to visit the website to get familiar with potential changes to their regular routes.

Riders without internet access can call the customer service line at (225) 389-8282.

Tweaks are also being made for the customer service department to ensure puzzled riders can get answers they need. Currently, customer service is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. By March 30, the hours will extend to 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

However, two key informational elements will not be ready for the first week of the new system: signs with schedules at the individual bus stops and the Google Trip Planner.

Mirabito said he decided not to print the schedules for the new bus stops yet, because he anticipates there could be some minor tweaks made in the next couple of months.

The Google Trip Planner, a function of Google Maps used by many cities, allows riders to plug in their beginning and end destinations to find out which bus routes they need to take. Mirabito said CATS has been working with Google to provide the service but it won’t be available until after the initial service rollout.

Mirabito said CATS decided to begin the campaign close to its deadline for new service.

“I don’t think it would have been very beneficial to start advertising four weeks ahead of time,” he said. “If people hear it over and over again, it loses its sense of urgency. This way, we’re getting people’s attention.”