James Gill: The wheels on the bus

It is no surprise that the Capital Area Transit System board in Baton Rouge screwed up when it tried to put the fix in. The board screws everything up.

It was true to form when trying to hand a management contract, worth $1.5 million over 18 months, to the only contender with no relevant experience. A CATS committee chose the SJB Group of Baton Rouge over three rivals of national and international renown after an evaluation that had every appearance of a sham. Amid howls of protest from Mayor Kip Holden and Metro Council members, however, the board backed off when the committee’s choice came up for ratification, voting to toss out all proposals and start over.

This was not how taxpayers in Baton Rouge and Baker expected their money to be spent when they approved a 10.6-mill increase last year. We already knew that many of the improvements promised when that tax was put on the ballot were not going to happen, and whether Baton Rouge will ever get the bus service its economy needs is an open question. Probably not so long as this board runs the show is the answer.

Its chairman, Isaiah Marshall, took an unconventional approach to the choice of management company. The technical evaluation of bids has always been left to staffers, but on this occasion, Marshall put himself and three other board members on a team of six. The only evaluator from outside CATS, a Baton Rouge airport manager named Jason Wilson, included a zero among his scores for all bidders save SJB.

This might cause alarm in the New Orleans area, where one of those companies, Veolia, has long been a big player in transit, and is responsible for the city’s bus and streetcar services. It is hard to believe Veolia was not worth a single point for “approach to the project and ability to meet deadlines.” Its other scores in that category ranged from 15 to a perfect 30.

Emily Efferson, director of procurement for CATS, said anomalous scores may indicate further investigation is called for; an evaluator handing out zeroes willy nilly may be disqualified.

Efferson’s views would normally be crucial, for her responsibilities include supervising the selection of contractors. On this occasion, however, Marshall shunted her aside in favor of CATS attorney Creighton Abadie, purportedly in order to “expedite” matters. That hasn’t worked out too well. Had Wilson’s bizarre numbers not counted, Veolia would have been clearly top-rated and Baton Rouge might now be taking its first halting steps towards efficient mass transit.

Instead, a committee of four board members, including Marshall and another who had doubled as an evaluator, gave their blessing to SJB. All that remained was for Marshall and the full board to ratify the recommendation from Marshall’s committee that the scores awarded by Marshall’s evaluators be accepted.

Marshall convened a meeting to do so last week, but evidently figured out the losing candidates were likely to sue and attract even more attention to the catastrophe he presides over. But even as embarrassment forced his retreat, Marshall insisted his critics were “classless,” presumably on the theory that the unvarnished truth is vulgar.

Marshall explained that he had to commandeer the evaluation phase because the future of public transit is so “important” that board members needed to “view the proposals and public presentations.” But that reasoning immediately lost much of its cogency when Marshall announced that board members would be excluded from evaluations next time around.

An improved bus service will ultimately emerge if only because CATS has so much money to spend on it, albeit nowhere near as much as projected. When the new tax was proposed, voters were told it would add about $18 million per year to the CATS budget, but about $6 million of that was moonshine.

CATS, for instance, included an annual $3.6 million subsidy that Metro Council members had made clear would be discontinued if the property tax passed. Turned out they were serious. CATS also figured the bus tax would pass in Zachary, a view never shared by anyone who lives there, and another $1.1 million went out the window. Another quaint CATS notion was that the homestead exemption would not apply to the bus tax, but the attorney general read the law otherwise to deliver another hit, this one to the tune of $2.2 million.

Thus, CATS announced last fall, of the eight new express lines promised in the election campaign, only two would now be delivered. Various other upgrades would have to be abandoned too. The need for management help was becoming urgent.

James Gill can be contacted at jgill@theadvocate.com.