CATS to focus on Nicholson Drive with Bus Rapid Transit

Dreams of a streetcar serving the Nicholson Drive corridor that connects downtown Baton Rouge to the LSU campus may take years to become a reality, but the Capital Area Transit System is stepping up with a plan to fill the void.

The board of the parish bus system voted Tuesday to dedicate about $1.8 million in federal grants to the growing Nicholson Drive corridor. CATS received the federal earmarks in 2006 for a service called Bus Rapid Transit, which is a faster bus route with more buses making limited stops — often with its own dedicated lane.

For years, CATS had planned to use the funds to provide the service on Florida Boulevard, but the grants sat dormant because the underfunded agency lacked the necessary 20 percent match. Now that CATS has a dedicated funding source, the agency has turned its sights to Nicholson Drive in light of a recent push by various groups to build the street car line.

Bob Mirabito, CATS CEO, said the earmarks include about $823,000 for equipment that could be used for two buses and a shelter or station. The remaining funds are dedicated to design, engineering and planning.

He said the planning for the rapid transit service will be done with the eventual trolley in mind, which can mitigate some of the long-term costs.

“We can mirror the stops, we can plan amenities like shelters or stations that are capable of handling both BRT and the tram equipment,” he said. “We can start building out the infrastructure using BRT and then you’re not wasting anything.”

Plans for the streetcar were unveiled in February by John Fregonese, the planner who is helping to implement the FutureBR master land-use plan. The cost of the project has been estimated between $60 million and $100 million and the length of the route has ranged from 3.5 miles to 7.4 miles.

Davis Rhorer, director of the Downtown Development District, said the city-parish is already seeking federal grants, but he speculates the actual streetcar route could be four or five years away.

He said with new developments down Nicholson and the creation of the Water Campus, there will soon be a heavy demand for public transit on the road.

“It’s an urban response to suburban sprawl,” Rhorer said. “We must have efficient transportation to move people along.”

Mirabito said the need for bus rapid transit services on Florida Boulevard was diminished because CATS has already added a limited-stop service for that route.

He said improving service on the Nicholson route will take pressure off the adjacent Highland Road route, which has the second-highest ridership and one of the lowest rankings for on-time performance.

At the CATS meeting, the board also approved up to $250,000 for the purchase of 20 additional bus shelters.

CATS promised to build about 100 new bus shelters during its 2012 tax campaign to deliver better service. While CATS has already delivered new routes and expanded service, it’s continued to lag on its promise to build new shelters.

Mirabito said earlier this year that the new deadline for the bus shelters would be by the end of the year.

The most recent allocation will bring the total purchase of shelters up to 40.

The first eight are already in construction and expected to be finished within a month, Mirabito said.

About 60 more shelters, valued at about $1 million with construction costs, have yet to be purchased.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz