Baton Rouge's bus system is in crisis. The future of the Capital Area Transit system, or "CATS," will be determined in a special tax election on Saturday. As WRKF's Tegan Wendland reports, the system is facing a $2.1 million deficit in a budget currently projected at $12.6 million. The tax revenue would not only close that gap, but totally overhaul the existing system, and if it doesn't pass? Proponents say the buses could shut down in July.
On a sunny weekday afternoon Kyriakus Matthews waits for the number 10 bus on Florida Boulevard and North 22nd. He explains, "It don't exactly do what you'd expect it to do, like take you wherever you want to go." Matthews takes this route every day to school at Valley Park Alternative from his home in Scotlandville, but he'd never attempt riding it out to the Mall of Louisiana, which could take hours. He says he learned the routes from his mother. He kind of had to; there aren't any routes or listings posted at any of the bus stops.
At a recent CATS board meeting Mayor President Kip Holden said there's no question over whether improvement is needed, and that will take money. Holden says, "Any time we have to go from year to year trying to figure out what we're going to do with a vital service that's badly needed by people, then it becomes a crisis."
For awhile now CATS has relied on one-time emergency funding from the Metro Council or special elections. But the 10.6 mill transit tax would create a steady revenue stream. The Baton Rouge Transit Coalition plan would dedicate about $184 million from the tax to the system over 10 years. With that money they'd be able put up new signs, build new terminals, increase the number of routes from 19 to 37, and decrease the average waiting time from an hour and a half to just 15 minutes.
CATS board member Jared Loftus says, under new management, CATS has made vast improvements in the past four years - decreasing complaints from 57 per month in 2009 to just 9 monthly this year and dramatically increasing performance. He says they're ready to take on the project, "My vision for transportation in this city is for it to be available for everyone - that there are people who choose to ride this, that want to ride this, not just those that have to ride this."
But Alex Valesquez of anti-tax citizens' coalition Taxbusters it's exactly that kind of argument that has made the discussion over improving the bus system so messy. He says it's been too emotional and it's not fact-based, "There is a theme that goes along with the premise of the proposal that is simply: voting for the CATS tax is a vote for the people - a vote for the riders that need the bus to get to work, while a vote against it is voting against the people themselves."
Professor of Economics at LSU, Naci Mocan, says this transit system is key to Baton Rouge's success. He says 20 percent of the city's residents are unskilled, low income workers and supporting that workforce is imperative. Mocan says, "Having access to public transportation allows employment opportunities for unskilled workers. I mean, this is academic research, this is not shooting the breeze and scratching my belly and making these comments - there is a long line of academic researchers who have repeatedly shown that."
Valesquez agrees that Baton Rouge needs an improved bus system, but says the tax is exorbitant because there aren't enough riders to support the expansion, "Basically, the need is not great enough to justify a $30 million budget." That might be true, but as student Kyriakus Matthews says more people would ride the bus if the sentence was better, "People think buses are just for people who can't afford cars and are broke, and as long as they think that it's just gonna stay the same"
That's exactly the attitude CATS and its proponents are trying to change. The expansion plan would nearly doubles the number of buses. CATS President Brian Marshall says ridership will double too. Marshall says, "it's easy to imagine an increase of 100 percent over the next three years, that's easy to imagine."
Marshall says the increased fare revenue should make up 10 to 15 percent of the new $29 million budget.
And if that doesn't happen? He didn't have an answer for that.