How Baton Rouge Brought Its Transit System Back From the Brink

It’s funny how often public transit referendums bring out the the best in local communities. The case of Baton Rouge, Louisiana is a perfect example: Voters recently decided to essentially double investment in public transit — rescuing their transit agency from a long slide into irrelevance.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America took an in depth look yesterday at how transit advocates in this Deep South city built a broad, diverse coalition to make the case for transit:

Hundreds of Baton Rouge residents turned out for strategy meetings on how to save the local public transit system. The wide-ranging campaign worked. Photo: T4A

Even before the prolonged fiscal crisis hitting governments everywhere, Baton Rouge’s Capital Area Transit System (CATS) struggled to do more with less. Over the last few years, service had degraded to the point that the wait for a bus exceeded 75 minutes and average rides were over two hours long. The system was saved repeatedly only by last-ditch city budget shuffles, creative grants and even private donations.

After cobbling together grants and funding to make it through 2011, the mayor appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to make recommendations not only to save the service, but to create something much better. But the first job was to save the system, as Rev. Raymond Jetson, the chair of that commission, told the Baton Rouge Advocate:  “Before there can be a robust transit system, before you can do novel things like light rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and before you can have street cars from downtown to LSU, you have to have a backbone to the system,” he said. “And that backbone is a quality bus system.”

The commission learned that Baton Rouge was the largest city of its size in the country to have a transit system without a dedicated revenue source, subsisting on annual local government appropriations.

For the message, especially in the key districts with heavy transit usage and service, the campaign kept it very basic. “Save our system.” They noted that Baton Rouge was the only city of its size without a decent transit system, and talked about the people who depend on it each day: Perhaps the nurse who cares for your mother at the hospital, or your neighbor or friend. The campaign steered clear of some of the typical statistics in transit campaigns about reducing traffic congestion, gas prices or environmental impacts.

Here’s the ballot measure’s election day team:

Approval of the measure will allow the city to shorten wait times from 75 minutes to 15 minutes and keep the city of Baton Rouge running smoothly. Great job by everyone involved!

Elsewhere on the Network today: Systemic Failure takes issue with an LA Times article saying California High Speed Rail has an unrealistic timeline. Extraordinary Observations wonders if deregulation of the taxi industry would improve service. And Greater Greater Washington reports that Virginia Governor Bob O’Donnell threatens to halt the expansion of a new segment of DC’s Metro.