A wing and a prayer

A wing and a prayer

A 10.6-mill tax that's being framed as comprehensive transit reform would provide a funding source for improvements to the Capital Area Transit System.

The Rev. Raymond Jetson has been pastor of Star Hill Church since 1994. On Jan. 19, however, he spoke to a different flock, at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. Still, his call and the response from more than 100 people in attendance were in sync.

“A lot of us,” he says, “have been around long enough to know you don't get something …”

“For nothing,” they respond in unison.

On that day, Jetson led what interfaith organization Together Baton Rouge calls “a civic academy on transit reform.” The 10.6-mill tax that voters in Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary will consider on April 21 might rescue the Capital Area Transit System from potential ruin, but supporters have been careful to frame the proposition as a “comprehensive transit reform” proposal and not a “CATS tax.”

Point by point, Jetson lays out his case. Baton Rouge spends about one-fifth as much on transit per person as its peer Southern metros. Despite what he says is the system's efficient use of its scarce funding, a simple trip across the city by bus can take two-and-a-half hours—about the same amount of time as a drive to Biloxi, Miss.

Without a new funding source, officials say, CATS will shut down by this summer. And without an effective public transportation system, the streets of Baton Rouge will be a virtual parking lot in 20 years.

“You can't build your way out of [congestion],” Jetson says after his presentation. “You have to provide an alternative to people being in their cars.”

His audience, many of whom depend on the buses, is receptive. The workshop is partly about laying out the proposal, and partly about providing attendees with enough information to discuss the issue with their friends and neighbors. If by April the public believes the only purpose of the tax is to prop up CATS, Jetson says, organizers will have failed.

“It's about, where do we start to build the backbone of a transit system in our city?” he says.

Finding funding

Early last year, Mayor Kip Holden asked a Blue Ribbon Commission to develop a comprehensive list of transit recommendations. Jetson chaired the group.

A common trait of successful public transportation systems is a dedicated funding source. In the past, CATS has depended largely on fares and city-parish funding, a reliance that limits the system's ability to pursue matching funds and leaves it at the mercy of the Metro Council.

The commission proposed a Capital Area Transit District that it said was based on the FuturEBR master plan. Funding would have come from a sales tax of about a quarter-cent and a property tax of about 4 mills, which would have spread the pain.

Approval of the funding plan would have required legislative consent, since East Baton Rouge Parish already has reached its constitutional limit for sales taxes. But the system's immediate shortfall necessitated moving the planned ballot initiative from November to April, which meant organizers couldn't wait for the Legislature.

To raise roughly the same amount of money—about $18.4 million per year—the CATS board elected to go with a 10.6-mill, 10-year tax, which is triple the 3.5 mills voters rejected in 2010. By comparison, the East Baton Rouge Parish Library System receives 11.1 mills, while BREC gets about 14.5 mills. A Baton Rouge resident with a $300,000 house would pay an additional $26.50 per month.

David Aguillard, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and a commission member, says the current proposal fulfills many of the commission's proposed reforms, such as shortening wait times and moving from an outdated hub-and-spoke system to a grid system, and focuses on most of the same core area that the commission's proposed district would have included.

Supporters hope a more reliable bus system will attract more riders. But Aguillard says people with no intention of getting on a bus still benefit from the improvements. Research in the FuturEBR report shows every dollar spent on transit leads to $35 in economic development and also that workforce access to public transit is very poor in Baton Rouge.

“With a better public transit system, employers will have a greater range of employees to choose from,” he says.

Aguillard says a better system would enable families easier access to what the city has to offer.

Point by point

A proposed $10.6-mill property tax would fund what supporters are calling "comprehensive transit reform." They say reform will include:

• Decreasing wait time between buses from 75 minutes to 15 minutes at peak hours

• Building three new transfer centers to replace a "spoke" system with a "grid" system

• Overhauling bus stops and signage

• Adding GPS tracking to the buss fleet

• Increasing service from 19 to 37 routes

• Increasing peak hour buses from 32 to 57

• Creating eight new express and limited stop routes

• Laying the foundation for a "bus rapid transit" system, which typically includes dedicated lanes for high-volume routes

• New criteria for CATS board membership

• Support for legislation to remove the Metro Council from decisions about routes and fares

• Concrete benchmarks and timelines for service improvement

SOURCE: Together Baton Rouge

“We end up like me,” he says. “I run a daddy taxi service on the weekends.”

Transit supporters say many young professionals want to live in a city with viable public transportation. While buses aren't as cool as trolley cars or passenger trains, FuturEBR says buses are the necessary foundation for whatever might be next. If the long-discussed high-speed rail from New Orleans to Baton Rouge is built at some point, how would a person get around Baton Rouge once he or she arrives?

The commission briefly considered the idea of a privatized bus service. It ultimately decided the idea wasn't feasible, and that the current system is run well enough when compared to those in peer cities.

“It does a little with practically nothing,” Aguillard says. “I won't say it does a lot with very little.”

Even a privatized system likely would need a dedicated funding stream. LSU charges students $66 a semester to support the company that runs the Tiger Trails service, up from $44 per semester when CATS had the contract.

Reform and accountability

About 400 ballot initiatives have been proposed nationwide since 2000, says Jason Jordan with the Center for Transportation Excellence, which defends the merits of transit. About 70% have been successful, he says, which is about twice the rate of all ballot measures. Even during the worst years of the most recent recession, passage rates remained strong.

On the other hand, 10.6 mills is a lot, and many East Baton Rouge Parish residents already feel overtaxed. In 2010, supporters of the CATS tax mostly went with a stealth approach. For the new proposal, supporters are attempting to organize, though it remains to be seen if there also will be an organized opposition. The proposal is limited to the three cities, while leaving out Central and the unincorporated areas, which likely improves its chances.

“Some people think that the new plan is sort of gerrymandered,” says Edgar Cage, co-chair of the Together Baton Rouge Transit Action Team. “That's not true. The people who are voting on it are in the actual areas where the expansion of current services will take place. So it just makes sense.”

The commission also calls for governance reform and accountability measures, with concrete benchmarks that would hold everyone at CATS accountable, from the CEO to the bus drivers.

“We welcome the critical eye of any group that wants to educate themselves on mass transportation in Baton Rouge to better hold us accountable to the people,” CATS board member Jared Loftus says.

The specific accountability measures have not yet been formulated, however. But Jetson says he'll be watching closely regardless.

“If CATS is not a good steward of the public resources,” Jetson says, “I will be the guy leading the defeat of the next vote.”

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