The CATS in the cradle
The CATS in the cradle

When residents of Baton Rouge passed a 10.6-mil property tax that boosted the annual budget of the parish bus system from $12 million to just shy of $30 million, they added a few hundred dollars—on average—to their property tax bills.

It's going to be a very Merry Christmas for the Capital Area Transit System.

But more taxes are not all that 225ers should expect to get out of this deal. Whether or not you are among those who supported the measure, what's most important now is that none of us lets our contributions to the local bus system end at our tax hike.

It is time for the community to come together as both champions and watchdogs for a system that now has, in the words of CATS CEO Brian Marshall, the funding it needs to make Baton Rouge “the next great American city.”

Not good. Great.

One hitch in Marshall's optimism is that, far from showing unity among citizens, April's vote was yet another example of how sharply divided this city is.

With one exception, a majority of voters in every precinct south of Florida Boulevard voted against the CATS tax.

But it doesn't always have to be that way.

The fact is public transit will be supported by more of the parish as soon as it becomes a system used by more of the parish.

Based on April's vote being divided sharply along regional (read: racial) lines, we are a ways off from seeing that happen.

Still, it remains a tangible goal, if only CATS can deliver on its “campaign” promises, and Baton Rouge residents and businesses step up to do their part.

The Mall of Louisiana, Perkins Rowe, Towne Center and other commercial centers that happen to sit outside of the squiggly-lined tax district need to pony up, or else city-parish officials should propose an amendment to the tax that would ensure the percentage contributions of the many businesses that benefit greatly from people arriving by bus to work for them or to buy from them match those of the average property owner.

A system respected and used by a more diverse majority of the parish won't happen if CATS is satisfied with going about business as usual, content with taking our tax dollars and making small, incremental improvements to the status quo for the next 10 years.

With this increased budget, CATS has a responsibility now to think differently, to implement best practices from excellent systems like those in Denver, New York City and Portland, and to bring much-needed innovation and re-branding to a bus system whose reputation could use a real shot in the arm.

It's time for our city's populace to help CATS remain creative and accountable in this pursuit.

We need to tell city officials exactly what we want and what we expect from the public transit system.

It's time to build a system that is efficient and technology-driven—one that is equally attractive to the working class who are dependent on public transportation and to those professionals and the creative class who would gladly use a quality bus system by choice.

If we do that, CATS will have earned its budget increase, and the city of Baton Rouge will finally have a bus system that more residents want to get on board with.

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