When the Together Baton Rouge battalions of volunteers hit the streets for the April vote on a public transit tax, their advocacy helped turn the tide. The tax for the Capital Area Transit System passed in Baton Rouge and Baker, although a third proposal failed in Zachary.
Then, Together Baton Rouge’s coalition of congregations and civic organizations pledged to keep watch on CATS to make sure that the tax money is well spent.
However, despite the new and high-profile nature of CATS’ funding, Together Baton Rouge and other backers of transit have been dismayed by reports that the $30 million a year level of service that they pushed in the tax election will be significantly diminished.
Zachary will not contribute any taxes, and another chunk of money was cut when officials decided that the CATS tax is subject to the homestead exemption, unlike most municipal taxes. And now the city-parish has signaled that it will not renew its $3.6 million or so annual contribution from the general fund for CATS.
All told, the system is projecting a 2013 budget that is about $6.6 million below the level expected.
None of this was private information, but the impression of a $6 million-plus “oops” without explanation, or even a heads-up, to transit backers points to a management failure at CATS — even before it is able to ramp up services with the tax proceeds coming in January.
The impact on planned service: Six out of eight limited-stop and express routes promised during the tax election are apparently off the table.
Even so, public transit will become more practical for many more people to ride over the course of the year, as more buses and drivers are added to the existing bare-bones CATS services. By 2014, service should be significantly better than it is today.
But what CATS board members, managers and staff don’t appear to get is that this is a new world in terms of communication and accountability. The tax passed with 53 percent of the vote, and that tax won’t be renewed in 10 years if there is an atmosphere of communication and customer service reminiscent of the old Soviet Union.
Public transit in Baton Rouge may vault into the 20th Century with this first bus tax, but the public expectations are for a great deal more responsive and effective service than in the last century.
This funding gap isn’t good news, but bad feelings among public transit advocates — much less the tax’s opponents earlier this year — are not a good sign, either.