Belling the Blue CAT

Belling the Cat is a fable also known under the titles The Bell and the Cat and The Mice in Council. In the story, a group of mice agree to attach a bell to a cat’s neck to warn of its approach in the future, but they fail to find a volunteer to perform the job. The term has become an idiom describing a group agreeing to perform an impossibly difficult task – which, to be fair, the job of Freo Council often is!

In this very Fremantle story, it all happens in reverse. An agitated bunch of South Freo residents, and neighbouring allies, place a bell on the Famous Blue CAT and hatch a plan to metaphorically drive it into next Wednesday evening’s Fremantle City Council meeting where the future of the Blue CAT will be discussed and voted upon.

The issue has arisen rather suddenly for many residents. Many complain they have had little notice of a recommendation that Council cease to fund the Blue CAT bus service that runs from central Fremantle, along South Terrace to near South Beach, South Fremantle, and back to central Fremantle along Marine Terrace. At a meeting of the Council’s FPOL – Finance, Policy, Operations and Legislation – committee last Wednesday night, FPOL adopted the recommendation. Now it goes to full Council this coming Wednesday night, 24 May 2023. Expect a lively meeting. The peasants are revolting!

At a standing-room only meeting in the Garage at South Freo’s The Local Hotel last night, residents – mainly from South Fremantle, but also a goodly number from Fremantle and a few Beaconsfield and North Coogee folk as well – belled the Blue CAT, willing it to enter the forthcoming full Council meeting to remind the Mayor and elected members just how much Freo people not only love it, but need it.

After a discussion that at times revealed a passion you’d normally only discover at a Dockers’ home Derby, last night’s meeting unanimously resolved –

‘That the City of Fremantle NOT cease funding the Blue CAT service.

The meeting was formally addressed by Gina Blakemore, a coordinator of the South Fremantle Precinct, who made the opening address; Ian Ker, whose amended motion was ultimately, enthusiastically and unanimously, carried on a show of hands; Matt Clarke, local MP Simone McGurk’s Electorate Officer, who had the unenviable task of advising the packed out meeting that his boss had little to say except that you shouldn’t blame her as it’s a Freo Council matter; and finally South Ward Councillor Maria Vujcic and Central Ward Councillor Adin Lang both of whom strongly support retention of the Blue CAT.

They were followed by a legion of orators from the floor, each worthy of place in the Roman Forum – mostly eloquent and persuasive, all passionate.

While many insights and ideas came from the floor, Gina Blakemore’s opening address concisely anticipated the sense and thinking of the meeting, and with her kind permission we include the substance of it here –

Good evening. My name is Gina Blakemore, South Fremantle Precinct Co-convenor and South Fremantle resident, artist, Mum of four and community volunteer. Why am I doing this? Because I love our community and care about our public transport.

I would like to thank Councillors Adin Lang and Marija Vujcic attending and speaking tonight. I would also like to thank Matt Clarke, Electoral Officer, for speaking on behalf of Simone McGurk, Member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly for the seat of Fremantle, and Minister for Community Services.

I would sincerely like to thank you all, for attending the Keep the Cat community meeting. It is a rather quick and spontaneous meeting, as the fate of the Blue Cat will be decided next Wednesday 24 May, at the 6.00pm council meeting.

I am here to advocate for keeping the CAT bus. Tonight’s meeting is purely for finding positive resolutions and motions to keep our well-loved Blue, and hopefully also Red, CAT buses running for our Fremantle tourists, visitors, businesses and community.

The Freo CAT is an essential public service because it is a service that was designed to link the key locations within our beautiful city. We need tourist drawcards that take visitors and residents around to our destinations.

The Freo CAT was introduced in 2000 and extended to South Fremantle in 2005. It is part of what makes Fremantle unique. The CAT bus was originally funded by paid parking being introduced on Sundays.

The bus route gives tourists a feel for the layout of our city, to be able to hop on and off, and makes it easy to get to all the historic sites and areas, parks, museums, the markets, the hospital, the train station, venues, hotels, Air BnBs, beaches and shops. This brings money to our city. Many cities offer a central bus service like this around Australia and in cities overseas.

The CAT bus is not something that can realistically be shared between all areas of Fremantle at this stage. To keep our city vibrant, we should stick with what we have for now. Use it or lose it. We could build up and adjust routes later. That would be another big discussion to nut out for another time.

I have witnessed and been involved in discussions about the CAT Bus at precinct and council. It basically comes down to not having the money to fund the CAT Buses at this stage. We have a small ratepayer base compared to other cities. I am not going to finger point here at all, but it can be frustrating, as discussions can go round and round. We just want to find out if there is any way possible to find a resolution to this problem.

As one of my old bosses said, don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution. Hopefully we can all work on this solution together.

The Perth CAT is funded by Parking.

The Joondalup CAT is funded by Joondalup Council, Edith Cowan University, and the State.

Here is the ceased Red CAT route and the current Blue CAT route. Our Cat Buses are currently around six years old.

The Red CAT was cut on Sunday 16 August 2020, and was ceased for 12 months during Covid phase four.

For 20 years, rate payers have paid 60% of the operating costs and the Public Transport Authority has funded 40%.

We could try to survey the bus drivers from pre-Covid to find out what numbers used to travel on the Red and Blue CATS. The survey undertaken during Covid is not helpful as our borders were closed and a lot of people were working from home.

Maybe another survey of usage is due?

If the Blue CAT is also cut, the only bus servicing between South Fremantle and Fremantle, is the 532, to and from Cockburn Central. Frequency for the 532 is hourly off-peak, on weekends and public holidays, except in peak periods.

The current City South Beach Place Plan mentions the CAT bus being on the tourist circuit, and yet the transport taking tourists to that area could be cancelled.

If the Blue CAT is cut, the venues in South Fremantle will isolated from the venues in the central city.

We can’t see the Public Transport Authority suddenly changing routes to accommodate us if the CAT is cut. This can take years. Some of you many remember the Liberal government decision to cease passenger trains. This went on from 1979 to 1983 before they were bought back by the Labor government. We don’t want history to repeat itself and be left without a bus service.

For people who can walk 20 minutes, it is OK to walk into Fremantle from South Fremantle, or vice versa, and walk in from the shouldering suburbs. For all the young families, elderly and disabled who frequent the CAT bus, this will be life-changing for them in a very isolating way. It will also be a problem for anyone who doesn’t like to get wet or hot. 23.8% of South Fremantle’s population is 65 years and over, and Fremantle has 20%. Our youth also use the CAT Bus to travel between destinations.

Tourists will have to walk to all our marketed destinations not on or near a bus route, like Bathers Beach, Fishing Boat Harbour, the Ship Wreck Museum and South Beach. That won’t bode well for us as an interstate and international travel destination. Locals and visitors bring money to our businesses which keeps our city vibrant. Without that, our city will go onto decline.

Where will everyone park now that they will have to drive to all these destinations? We have lost and are losing carparks. This is supposed to be a green city that cares about the environment by reducing vehicles on the road. Public transport is an amenity that should never be cut in a city budget. Our population will keep increasing and our tourism will grow. Plus, so many people are reliant on and have built or bought their homes and businesses, and made routines, around the CAT routes with their everyday lives.

I would like to think the State government could be approached, again, for some funding, and Notre Dame University too, as well as South Fremantle and Fremantle residents, and the businesses in South Fremantle and Fremantle. There must be a way. 

I am here to ask for some extra time for a solution to be found by the City of Fremantle, in conjunction with the Fremantle Community, before a terminal decision for our CAT bus is made.

Thank you.

So that our readers near and far can better assess just what the flashpoints at the upcoming Council meeting are likely to be, here is what Mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge said on the issue on Facebook during the week –

At Council this month we will consider a Committee recommendation to cease funding the operation of the remaining Blue CAT service. I want to share why officers are recommending this, and why I supported the recommendation at Committee.

Ever since I was elected to Council, nearly seven years ago, the CAT bus has been fraught topic. We’ve discussed long and hard whether we can afford it, what purpose it serves and how we might be able to fund it. I’ve also had a lot of community conversations about it over the years – both with those who love the service, and those who feel like they’re missing out.

In my discussion, there are two main user groups for the current Blue CAT. Those who primarily live in South Fremantle (or park there) and use it to get around – to school, to the shops, to the train station – and those who like it as an experience, for example to take the grandkids out for a bus ride to get fish and chips at Fishing Boat Harbour.

The first user group are using it as a public transport service – and it is a great service for them – but there’s a few issues with the City funding it for this reason. Firstly, it means that the PTA don’t need to provide adequate other services to the area – effectively shifting 60% of the cost of public transport in South Freo, to the City. Secondly, it’s a service that’s paid for by all ratepayers to the benefit of a particular area only – try asking a Hilton resident what they think of the CAT when their bus service comes once every hour during most of the day. Thirdly, as it’s a free service, it means people park in South Fremantle to get a free ride to the CBD and train station – which adds to the already challenging parking situation in South Freo. Finally, it is 60% funded by the City, which is something that only happens in Freo.

It’s not that we haven’t tried to find solutions. We’ve spoken to our neighbouring Local Governments, the Port, Notre Dame and businesses to see if they want to contribute. We’ve asked the PTA if we can add a tag on tag off or payment system for the buses and the answer is no. We’ve tried to see if we could get a Free Transit Zone across all of Freo – also no. Sell advertising on the buses – no. The nail in the coffin has been the PTA’s new bus contract with Transdev, which will see the cost of the CAT bus increase by 30 per cent.

So what next? Council will consider the recommendation at our meeting on 24 May. If it’s supported, we’ll be straight into negotiating with the PTA to design replacement services for the area previously serviced by the CAT bus. We’re also proposing to go to market for a paid hop-on hop-off tourist bus service like you’d see in many tourist cities of the world, connecting our key destinations with the train station and, during the season, the cruise ships. That should keep the tourists – and the grandkids – happy.

If you’d like to read the full recommendation it’s here in the FPOL Agenda – you can also register there to speak at Council should you wish.

So, folks, there you are – you have open invitations to attend the Freo Council meeting next Wednesday night 24 May 2023. It’s on at 6 pm at the Walyalup Civic Centre, 151 High Street, central Fremantle.

One suspects there will be standing room only, once again, and you may well have to watch proceedings from a nearby place outside the Council Chamber.

And if you do want to speak, don’t forget to register.

For more information, follow up South Fremantle Precinct’s Facebook page.

Finally, so that there can be no mistake about just where Fremantle Shipping News stands on this issue – Go the Famous Blue CAT!

* By Michael Barker, Editor, Fremantle Shipping News


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