Traffic woes prompt CATS to rethink bus transfer hubs

The new bus hubs that allowed parish bus system managers to put together more direct routes for riders and shorten the time they spend waiting for buses have run into problems and may have to be reconfigured.

Just three weeks into the systemwide route changes, problems have emerged with traffic congestion at a busy downtown bus transfer hub. Meanwhile, management at the Mall of Louisiana has been less than fully receptive to a hub there. And the third hub is located at the former Earl K. Long Hospital in north Baton Rouge, a facility that is planned to be demolished.

The transfer hubs, which Capital Area Transit System Chief Executive Officer Bob Mirabito likened to airline hubs, play a key part in the improved services CATS rolled out this year. When a stop becomes a hub, it means buses sometimes park for a few minutes waiting for other buses to arrive, so riders can make a connection.

Before the March 30 service expansion, CATS operated with a single bus hub, or transfer point, at the Florida Boulevard terminal. The single transfer point meant most routes were inefficiently directed to the hub so riders could catch a connecting bus.

CATS added transfer hubs at Cortana Mall, Mall of Louisiana, the former Earl K. Long hospital and the North Boulevard Town Square which riders say have sped up service and shortened their trips.

But CATS officials are already mulling moving three of the four hubs because of traffic and other issues.

Mirabito said the hubs were selected as part of an operational analysis conducted before he took the job. He admits not much consideration was given to the impact of the hubs on traffic.

“I don’t think anybody, including myself, really did as good a job as we could have seeing an impact,” he said. “This was something totally new for Baton Rouge, and all of Baton Rouge, including CATS, is still learning from this experience.”

North Boulevard Town Square has seen the most bus activity since the change, with 12 routes that pass through, causing traffic problems for the busy downtown space.

Davis Rhorer, director of the Downtown Development District, said the increased number of buses that sometimes are parked for several minutes in front of the waiting space causes congestion and blocks traffic.

“We’ve had CATS buses run through there for two years now, but CATS doubled the service there in a short amount of time,” Rhorer said. “I don’t think for a hub that serves 12 lines now that that location is the best.”

Town Square also is closed to traffic about 50 days each year for public concerts, festivals and other events, cutting off bus access to the hub. So far, the bus hub has already been relocated for Live After Five Concerts on Friday nights and the Blues Festival held this past weekend.

Rhorer said downtown should still have a hub but suggested it might be better suited for an area on the perimeter, such as the riverfront area.

Mirabito said the downtown hub has become the busiest of the five, estimating that of the 54,000 passengers CATS carried in the first couple of weeks after the new routes took effect, about 27,000 passed through Town Square.

He said it’s unclear whether CATS will need to move the existing infrastructure for the downtown bus transfer hub, which includes a modern, covered waiting space for passengers and a digital sign display.

The Mall of Louisiana transfer hub also faces the possibility of being relocated because of resistance in recent months from the mall’s management.

CATS had been in talks to develop a bus hub with a previous manager who recently left that position. Since the manager’s departure, Mirabito said, CATS has received pushback on increasing service to the area due to concerns about buses blocking the lanes and parking areas surrounding the mall.

Mall management also prevented CATS from putting a temporary bus shelter at the site for the new service rollout with additional benches. Recently, CATS was asked to take down a bus route map because it violated the mall’s no solicitation policy, Mirabito said.

Tony Stephens, who recently took over as general manager of the Mall of Louisiana, said he plans to meet with Mirabito to discuss options. But until he meets with CATS officials, he said, it’s premature to say what the future of CATS service will be at the mall.

“We’re getting stacked up a little bit, and we want to work with CATS to minimize safety hazards,” Stephens said.

Mirabito said he already is meeting with officials from Baton Rouge General Medical Center-Bluebonnet and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in the event CATS can’t work out a deal with the mall.

The third moving target is the bus hub located at the former Earl K. Long Hospital in north Baton Rouge. Mirabito said it’s unclear why the hub was planned for a closed hospital set for demolition, but he’s been actively working on a plan to lease property owned by LSU next to its urgent care clinic, which is less than a mile from the hospital.

Each of the hubs ultimately will be built up with infrastructure that could include additional bus shelters, a restroom and a kiosk with CATS employees.