CATS needs more changes after three months of new route structure

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POSTED: Thursday, July 17, 2014 - 10:29pm

UPDATED: Friday, July 18, 2014 - 10:08am

For the last three months, CATS buses have been moving in a new direction. The transit agency changed its routes and schedules to give people faster, more convenient service. But both the agency and its riders say it needs to make a few more turns.

When CATS campaigned for more tax money in 2012, it promised a bus system riders could be proud of.

"Before the change, it was really, it was real, real hectic," said Frank Lanasa. "I mean, you had no clue when a bus was coming. The schedules; one bus was scheduled for an hour, and one was scheduled for a half-hour, and it might not be for two hours, you might not see another bus."

Lanasa may be CATS's biggest critic. He sends multiple emails a day to CATS managers, board members, and the Metro Council detailing the problems he encounters. A long-time transit worker in New Orleans, he rides the bus almost every day and says the experience is better than before, but not close to good enough.

"I would never ride the bus again if my car would run," he stated. "I still got the car; just can't get it to run."

CATS changed its route structure in March. It took buses away from the main terminal on Florida Boulevard and put in more, more direct routes. The goal was to reduce trip times.

"Our on-time performance isn't where it needs to be, but it's at 74%," claimed CATS CEO Bob Mirabito, "and we're trying to get better."

Mirabito and Lanasa agree that part of the problem is that the new routes were not scheduled properly.

"The Highland route only has three buses on it," Lanasa mentioned. "Now, Bob Mirabito said it's the second-busiest route on his, in his company. You got three buses, at 5:00 in the afternoon, it's supposed to be able to run that route in, like, 40 minutes. You can't go from the Mall of Louisiana to downtown in 40 minutes at 5:00 in the afternoon. You can't do it! But that's what they got it scheduled for."

"We're analyzing our schedules," Mirabito said, "and on July 20, we're going to make some schedule changes across our route structure to more reflect what the reality is out there.

"The Highland Road route, for example. Probably one of our busiest routes, and it's a two-lane road. And it's difficult at times with traffic. Well, we've never had data on a per-trip basis before. So now we can look and say, okay, in the morning we may need to add a little bit of time, in the off-peak hours we're good to go. We may even be able to shorten the intervals up. And then, again, rush hour, we may have to put some more time in the schedule to be more realistic."

CATS promised lots of new shelters when the tax was approved. But the first ones have just now been built.

"It's taken a lot longer than I would've hoped, and I think everybody in the agency would've hoped," Mirabito stated.

"You go right here in Perkins Rowe and you could see, after 18 months of collecting new taxes, they finally broke ground to build a new shelter," Lanasa mentioned. "Walmart built a new store in less than a year!"

"We apologize for the length it's taken," Mirabito added, "but I think now we got it going. We have about 10 shelters in different stages of construction right now. And RFP is on the street for 32 additional shelters. And our goal is to have those 40 done by the end of the year.

"We're also working with the state, because they have a transit enhancement program, and that's going to cover about 50-60 shelters."

But what Mirabito claims to be most concerned about is CATS's fleet. Some of its buses were put in service in 1997 and have 750,000 miles on them.

"We've had some reliability issues," he noted. "it's no secret that we have an aged fleet. Unfortunately, for the first three months since the implementation, we've averaged 4.5 road calls per day (for broken-down buses)."

"And I don't know about your boss, but most bosses don't want to hear the excuse, 'my bus broke down," or, 'my bus was late,'" Lanasa argued. "They don't want to hear it, they don't care."

To replace 45 buses, CATS would need approximately $25 million. Mirabito said he hopes much of the cost will be paid by federal grants, but those are really competitive.

The Federal Transit Administration is, "giving away $100 million," Mirabito explained. "CATS is asking for $20 million of that. Well, we're one of a thousand transit agencies. I'm expecting that there are probably going to be between half a billion and a billion dollars of requested funding. So if we get a little bit of money, that's better than nothing."

Riders can check the RouteShout app on their phones or the CATS Trax software on the CATS website to see when a bus will come, but it often gives false information, especially during the busiest times of day. Sometimes, it is because the driver does not properly turn on the transmitter.

"When they get to that first stop, they have to actually execute three more steps in order to be on the system," Mirabito explained. "If we fail to do that, for example, then that bus doesn't show up on the GPS system. There's nothing wrong with the GPS system, it's just that we have to follow our procedures." 

"I was on Perkins Road, and it told me the bus picked me up," Lanasa mentioned. "And I'm still standing on the side of the road, and ten minutes later the bus comes.

"The bus that picked me up on Perkins Road didn't even show up. Didn't show up on the computer. And if you call customer service, they're using the exact same computer I'm using, and they can't tell you where the bus is at." 

Aside from the changes coming this weekend, CATS will probably make more route changes in November, including a route from downtown to L'Auberge Casino Hotel, to make sure taxpayers get what they voted for.

"I'm pleased with the progress that we've made. We have a lot more to do," Mirabito stated. "But I think that, based on the fact that our ridership is up seven percent for the first three months, I think it's been well-received by our customers."

As part of the changes coming on Sunday, CATS will add weekend service to its Airport Express route, and is adding stops downtown for its O'Neal Lane park-and-ride route. The CATS website is also being redesigning, with the potential addition of Google Trip Planner so it is easier for riders to find their way around.

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