CATS tweaking service in bid to improve public transit

Three months after the parish bus system unveiled its expanded service and new routes, the agency continues to tweak, adjust and add services.

One of the bigger challenges it still faces is finding another transfer hub to replace the one it now operates at the Mall of Louisiana. The mall’s owners have told CATS officials that they want the hub removed from there.

In the meantime, CATS has been working on several fronts to improve services.

On Sunday, it began extending bus service and adding stops for some routes, drawing from feedback it has received from riders. The agency also has its first round of new bus shelters under construction and is preparing to unveil a new online service through Google that will allow riders to easily map out and plan bus rides and transfers.

CATS also is studying a possible conversion to alternative fuel sources as it prepares to buy new buses.

“I think we’ve done well, and I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” CATS CEO Bob Mirabito said of the first few months of the new services.

There were 592,715 rides provided by CATS from April to June this year, compared with to 546,058 for the same period last year, for an increase of about 9 percent. CATS rolled out the new service beginning in April.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

After failed negotiations, the Mall of Louisiana’s management has asked CATS to relocate its transfer hub, which means rewriting several routes.

There’s also still an average of five bus breakdowns a day, which contributes to buses being off schedule more than 25 percent of the time.

And since the new routes were implemented, bus drivers have been in 57 accidents. The influx of crashes is due to the recent hiring of 70 new and inexperienced drivers to accommodate the expanded routes, Mirabito said.

Transfer hubs are key to the new services provided by CATS. Like airline hubs, the bus hubs are a place where buses converge so riders can make a connection to their next bus. Before April, CATS had one bus hub — the Florida Boulevard terminal — which made routes unnecessarily long.

The new service included creating hubs at the Mall of Louisiana, Cortana Mall, North Boulevard and in North Baton Rouge next to the former Earl K. Long Hospital.

Mirabito has cautioned for months that new management at the Mall of Louisiana was uncomfortable with groups of buses crowding the mall parking lot. He recently informed the board of directors that CATS has officially been asked to relocate the hub.

Tony Stephens, mall manager, said CATS was never explicitly given permission in the first place to create a congested transfer hub on the mall’s property. However, CATS officials have said they had been in talks for several months with the previous manager, Todd Denton.

“It created a liability issue where buses are parked, and it inhibits the views of drivers,” Stephens said. “I think it’s dangerous where it’s located.”

Stephens said CATS is welcome to maintain a bus stop at the location, but having five or six buses grouped in the parking lot at a time creates traffic issues.

Mirabito said moving the hub is likely to be a six-month process — one that will require rewriting several routes and getting the approval of the Metro Council.

He is in talks with medical centers near the mall to potentially relocate the hub there.

As of this week, CATS also has tweaked some routes and schedules. A shuttle between Baton Rouge Metro Airport and downtown that was only operating during the week will now offer weekend service.

Another one of CATS’ new, limited-stop routes — the O’Neal “park and ride” route — also is increasing bus services offered to the public.

The route targets people in the southeast part of the parish who work downtown. It allows commuters to park their cars at the AMC movie theater on O’Neal Lane then take the express bus downtown to work in the morning and back to O’Neal in the evening.

The route stopped at North Boulevard Town Square, but Mirabito said 13 stops have been added to accommodate people who work in the various state offices on the other side of downtown.

The two express routes, which are the only ones with Wi-Fi access, were specifically designed to attract commuters to leave their cars home and take the bus.

So far, though, ridership for the two routes has been low. While traditional CATS routes rack up thousands of rides per month, ridership for the two express routes ranged from between 80 and 230 rides per month in the first two months, according to data provided by CATS.

Mirabito said it’s too early to tell if the routes will be eliminated for lack of use.

“We’ll have to determine at some point if it makes financial sense to continue it,” he said.

The routes on Gardere Lane, Highland Road and in Scotlandville are being adjusted to start earlier in response to complaints from riders that they couldn’t get to work on time.

CATS also is commissioning a study with the University of New Orleans, at a cost of $91,000, to make recommendations about purchasing buses that run on alternative fuels.

Mirabito said CATS will need to replace about 45 aging buses over the next four years, just as federal grants for equipment are disappearing. But, he said, federal money is more readily available for equipment that could improve air quality, which is a driving factor for the diesel-reliant agency to consider buying cleaner-running buses.

The study will determine if there would in fact be a cost benefit, Mirabito said. He said compressed natural gas buses, one of the more popular alternative fuel options, cost at least $100,000 more than the diesel buses CATS uses. There also would be additional costs associated with building a CNG station and training maintenance staff how to work on the new buses.

CATS hopes to get a report from UNO within six months.

CATS is expected to unveil its new website and the Google Trip Planner service this week. The trip planner on Google Maps allows riders to input their beginning and end location and get a rundown of what bus routes and connections they need to make. What seems like a simple concept has escaped the agency for several years and acted as a deterrent for new riders not familiar with the system.

The website soon will offer riders the ability to purchase bus passes online through PayPal or with a major credit card, rather than just at the terminal.

CATS is in the process of constructing the first 10 bus shelters out of about 100 it promised to build by the end of the year. The bus shelters have been an issue because they are considered an overdue deliverable that was promised in the April 2012 tax election.

Riders, who often have no covered shelter and sometimes not even a bench to sit on, have anxiously waited for the covered shelters, which are lit with solar power.

CATS changed its routes and expanded services as a result of the tax election, which gave the historically underfunded bus system a dedicated source of revenue beginning last year.

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