Saturday an election was held in the cities of Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary to add a ten mill property tax to support our ailing transit system, CATS (Capital Area Transit System). My husband and I voted for the tax, because while we don’t use public transit ourselves, we realize the importance of public transportation to people who cannot afford cars or the elderly who can no longer drive.
We would use our public transportation system if there were more frequent buses out at our end of town. My husband grew up in New Orleans, and I lived there during graduate school and the early years of my first marriage, and everyone took buses and the streetcar, at least part of the time. When I first moved to New Orleans, bus fare was a nickel, with free transfers. I had come from a city (Buffalo, NY) where the fare was 25 cents, plus a dime for transfers, so I was thrilled. By the time I was married, fares had increased to a dime.
Baton Rouge had buses when I moved here with my now ex-husband, but mostly in the downtown area. There was no bus to take me from home to work, so when we bought our first house, we also bought a second car.
Efforts have been made over the years to improve the transit system, but unlike in other cities, people here seem to think of public transportation as one of those services provided grudgingly for the destitute, sort of like food stamps, not as a service that everybody might profit from in terms of less traffic, less wear and tear on the family vehicle, and time to sit and read during the daily commute.
So as I said, my husband and I voted for the tax, but we were amazed when it actually passed, at least in Baton Rouge and Baker. It did not pass in Zachary, which means they won’t be getting the promised improvements, which include:
I. Service Improvements
- Decrease wait times between buses from the current average of 75 minutes to 15 minutes (at peak hours)
- Build 3 new transfer centers to replace "spokeî system with "gridî system
- Overhaul bus stops, with new shelters and benches
- Overhaul all signage for transit stops, providing detailed route and time information
- Add GPS tracking to fleet, with exact arrival times accessible on cell phones
- Increase service from 19 to 37 routes, including high-demand areas that currently are not served (eg. O'Neal Lane, Coursey Blvd., Essen and Siegen Lane)
- Increase peak-hour buses from 32 to 57.
- Create eight new express and limited stop lines:
- Southern University to Downtown
- Airport to Downtown
- O'Neal Lane to downtown
- Mall of Louisiana to Downtown
- Highland / I-110 to Downtown
Limited Stop Routes
- Baker/Zachary, through Southern University, to Cats Terminal
- Florida Blvd to Downtown
- LSU to Downtown
- Lay foundation for Bus Rapid Transit system
and some governance reform and accountability goals.
Then last night the other shoe dropped. A majority of council members indicated that now that CATS has its own funding from the property tax, they will probably drop the $3 million that is already in the budget for CATS in 2013. Okay, to be fair, the money from the new property tax is much more than that 3 million, but the point of the new tax was not to add another 3 million to the general pool for the council to play with.
I was suddenly reminded of a few nasty incidents I had forgotten. Years ago, during the Mayor Screen administration, a tax increase was placed on the ballot to provide additional funding for the public library. It passed, and Mayor Screen promptly convinced the council to cut the equivalent amount from the city-parish budget, so the library had about the same amount of money it had before, but Mayor Screen had a new fund to spend on his pet projects. He knew that an unrestricted tax increase would not have passed, but tied to a popular program like the library, it would. A badly burned city thereafter voted down tax after tax for much needed improvements to the school system.
Then there was the marriage license surcharge to support domestic violence programs. Following the lead of other states, activists managed to convince the legislature to increase the fee for marriage licenses by $10, with that money to go to funding domestic violence programs throughout the state, including new programs for rural areas. When Buddy Roemer took office, he was concerned about fiscal problems in the state and managed to get the extra money folded back into the general fund. When cost-cutting measures led to a budget surplus, the money did not go back to domestic violence programs as planned.
When I mentioned these incidents to my husband, he said, “Why do you think so many programs are protected in the state constitution? They knew just what these guys will do, given a chance.”
I feel like I owe a big apology to the anti-tax group that lobbied long and hard against the bus tax. For weeks I had been griping that they did not care about people who need to ride the buses, that they would deprive them of a way to get to a job and then complain about lazy people who won’t work. I guess I had forgotten the library incident because I didn’t think of the bus system as a popular service, like the library. Maybe some of the anti-tax people were acting out of race and class prejudice, but maybe a lot of them were just tired of the old bait and switch.
I know I am.