With CATS new beginning, can it attract ‘riders of choice’?

A new era for the Capital Area Transit System dawns Sunday with the unveiling of a brand new route structure and schedule that is supposed to provide wider, faster and more direct bus service to the parish — all of which were promises made during a 2012 tax election.

The improvements will be significant, supporters say.

But even the chief executive officer of the bus system doubts they will be enough to persuade a significant number of people to give up their personal vehicles in favor of taking the bus.

When CATS officials and other transit advocates asked the public to support a dedicated CATS tax in 2012, they promised the system would be fast and reliable enough to attract what they often referred to as “riders of choice.” That’s the term used to describe riders who have a car but choose to ride the bus. The system has long been used by only those who can’t afford to own a vehicle and have no other options for transportation.

The new system is a first step toward attracting riders of choice, said CEO Bob Mirabito.

He the system will find even more efficiencies to improve service as the bugs are worked out in the coming months. But to truly attract a significant number of those riders, he said, the system will need more money.

“We still have the lowest amount of funding of any of our peer agencies,” he said. “I’m not saying we can’t do better with our current budget — we will. But, realistically, in the long term, CATS is going to need more money (to attract riders of choice).”

While CATS has purchased 12 new buses and plans to buy 12 more every year, it still has a mostly outdated fleet that suffers from reliability issues, Mirabito said. He also said dedicated bus lanes and even shorter bus wait times are needed to truly revolutionize the system.

“Those are the things that are going to help drive riders of choice to the transit agency,” Mirabito said. “But this is a good first step.”

The new system will offer some incentives specifically targeting drivers.

For example, a park-and-ride route at O’Neal Lane invites drivers to park their cars at the AMC movie theater and ride a nonstop shuttle bus to downtown Baton Rouge. The route has wireless internet and targets people who live in the southern part of the parish and work a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job downtown.

“If you’re stuck in traffic and you have your tablet or your PC, you can at least get some work done,” Mirabito said. “You couldn’t do that in your car.”

Buses will run every half-hour leaving the movie theater parking lot from 6:15 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. In the afternoon, they will begin picking people up from North Boulevard Town Square at 3:45 p.m. until 6:15 p.m. to take them back to their cars.

The shuttle is a $3.50 round trip.

The park-and-ride has been experimented with by CATS in the past, with a route connecting Ascension Parish and downtown Baton Rouge that had low ridership.

Mirabito says CATS will aggressively market the route, but he noted that the 50 AMC parking spots are being leased for $1,000 a month. If the route is not successful, it could be cut, he said.

Wireless Internet also is being offered on the new shuttle service running between the Baton Rouge Metro Airport and downtown every hour between 7:15 a.m. and 5:42 p.m. The airport shuttle runs Monday through Friday until June, when it will be expanded to seven days a week. It costs $1.75 each way.

Ultimately, Mirabito said, he’d like all routes to have Wi-Fi.

He said that next year, the agency will buy new fare boxes that will take debit and credit cards on buses. And eventually the website, which is being redesigned, will allow riders to buy bus passes online. He said these changes are paramount to attracting riders of choice.

The new system will unveil 30 routes, up 10 from the old system. It cuts service to Zachary, where voters rejected the tax, and increases service in Baker, whose voters supported the tax along with Baton Rouge.

Most significantly, the route map has been restructured away from its outdated “hub and spokes” model, which previously diverted all routes through the Florida Boulevard terminal in order to catch connecting buses. The new routes provide more direct connections to destinations and create additional transfer hubs at the former Earl K. Long Hospital, Mall of Louisiana, Cortana Mall and North Boulevard Town Square.

The route restructuring is expected to shave time off of what typically could have been an two- or three-hour commute.

In the coming months, the hubs are expected to move because Earl K. Long is no longer open and new management at the Mall of Louisiana expressed concerns about buses blocking traffic. Once the long-term hub locations are determined, Mirabito said, plans will commence to build infrastructure for the hubs, including lines of shelters, bus lanes off the road, bathrooms and kiosks for operations workers.

Many CATS supporters and watchdog groups have expressed excitement about the service changes now taking place. But some appear to have softened their expectations about attracting riders of choice.

“This is the first time in nearly 35 years that we will have the basic infrastructure and revenue for a successful transit system,” said Edgar Cage, a leader with Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based nonprofit whose campaigning is credited with helping get the tax passed. “It is a necessary and crucial first step, but that’s what it is — just a first step.”

David Aguillard, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Transit Coalition, said it’s worth celebrating the fact that CATS is delivering an expanded and more efficient bus system.

While acknowledging CATS had taken some hits to its funding and was unable to deliver on all of the promises it made in 2012, he said he still thinks some riders of choice will start using bus transportation services.

“If CATS can deliver consistently on time and on schedule to what it says it’s committing, then the riders of choice will come,” Aguillard said. “It’s taken us four to five years to get to this point, and this is still a significant development. It’s something to celebrate.”

Ahead of the election, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber also was a major proponent of the tax, frequently noting that creating a more vibrant, attractive public transit system is important for the economy.

BRAC President Adam Knapp said this week he had not recently been briefed on the service changes and wasn’t clear on whether the new service would appeal to new riders.

He noted that CATS made two significant changes BRAC supported: revamping the route structure and partnering with a private transit agency to provide necessary expertise.

“I’m eager to hear if they’re going to get there,” Knapp said.

Mayor-President Kip Holden publicly endorsed the tax in January 2012 at a CATS meeting to announce that the tax proposal would be put on the ballot.

Holden declined to comment when asked for his opinion of CATS’ new services.

“I have not seen anything (from CATS) to even comment on,” he said.

Mirabito, who has only been with the agency since June, said CATS could have come closer to delivering its promises if it were working with a $30 million budget as proposed in the original tax plan.

The budget took several hits after Zachary voted the tax down and after it was determined that the homestead exemption was applicable. The city-parish also removed a $3 million local subsidy it had been providing.

CATS has an annual budget of $24 million, which is a 20 percent cut in funds from initial projections.

But Mirabito says he’s proud of the system revamp and is optimistic that there is still room to continue to improve service and attract new riders.

“What’s been accomplished in this agency in the last 120 days, compared to what’s happened in the last few years — to me, it’s mind boggling,” he said last week. “And I’m proud of what’s going to happen on Sunday.”