The parish bus system took another pivotal step Tuesday toward providing the expanded service promised to taxpayers in 2012 with the approval of new routes aimed at providing faster service to riders.
The Capital Area Transit System’s board of directors unanimously approved the new route maps and schedules that will go to the Metro Council for final approval on Oct. 23. The route changes are expected to be in place by March.
While the schedule includes several new routes, it eliminates service to Zachary.
The proposed changes will increase service from 20 to 30 routes and provide access to underserved areas such as O’Neal Lane and Coursey Boulevard, Metro Airport and the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired.
It also will take less time for people get from one place to another on a CATS bus.
For example, it takes 2 hours and 40 minutes and three buses to get from the former Earl K. Long Hospital in north Baton Rouge to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
Under the proposed route changes, it will take one bus and 45 minutes.
CATS interim CEO Bob Mirabito said riders using the new system will be better informed, because CATS will have improved signage, a working GPS system for smartphones and pocket-sized handouts with the route map and schedule.
Metro Councilman Trae Welch, whose council district includes Zachary, said in a telephone interview after the meeting he is concerned about the elimination of bus service to and from that city in the northern part of the parish.
The decision to leave Zachary out was prompted by the results of 2012 CATS tax election, which was voted on by residents of Baker, Baton Rouge and Zachary.
Only Zachary voted against the tax.
CATS officials also have said an average of only 13 people ride the bus to or from Zachary each day.
Eliminating Zachary service only stands to punish Baker residents who want to travel to Zachary, Welch said.
He called it a “petty decision” to punish voters and said CATS has opted to serve other areas outside the taxing areas, such as the Mall of Louisiana and Town Center, based on the idea that it serves the riders.
“They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth,” Welch said.
“On one side they’re saying they’re trying to enhance service, but on the other side of their mouth they’re saying — just not for those people who voted it down.”
Mirabito said CATS could potentially extend service back to Zachary in the future with the city’s cooperation. He said there are federal grant opportunities available that would fund specific routes, requiring a 50 percent local match.
Jim Mitchell, a CATS rider and former board member, said the changes to CATS routes will be a “vast improvement to what’s currently out there.”
“They’re working hard to get it right,” he said.
But Mitchell lamented that he has not seen a final draft of what CATS plans to propose to the Metro Council. He said he thinks officials should be doing more to get the information to the public.
The CATS board also gave the board chairman authority to negotiate a contract extension with Mirabito, who was hired on an interim basis in June.
His contract expires at the end of this year.
“We want to reward him for his very hard work, his very competent work during these difficult circumstances,” Board President Marston Fowler said.
Although terms of the extension haven’t been outlined yet, Fowler said, it’s intended to give Mirabito some security and to provide the agency some continuity during its transition over the next year.
Initially, the CATS board said it would hold a national search to find a leader for the agency.
Fowler said Tuesday that it’s unclear at this point whether a national search will be necessary.
He said the decision could depend on CATS’ new board members.
Ben Miller, a co-founder of Kean Miller law firm, was appointed last week, and there are three vacancies yet to be filled by the Metro Council.
“I just want the opportunity to finish what I’ve started,” Mirabito said.