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RTA hopes to build a downtown transit center

22nd April 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Eighteen-year-old Tiynishia Wells of New Orleans East would like a place to sit while waiting for her bus connections downtown. Last Tuesday afternoon, she was pleased to find a seat at her stop at Elk Place and Canal Street after advocates Ride New Orleans set up 200 chairs during a CBD Transit Hub Action.

On weekdays, Wells catches the Morrison Express at 6 a.m. with friends and travels for nearly an hour to Canal. Then she walks over to catch the Magazine bus to reach her Renew charter school uptown. She said the Morrison bus gets particularly crowded, and she usually gives up her seat to the elderly or moms with kids. Wells finishes school early in the afternoon and waits awhile for her connection at Elk Place. Getting home takes longer than her morning trip, and all the standing and traveling wear her out.

Riders waiting for the bus at Elk Place last Tuesday on chairs from Ride New Orleans.  Photo courtesy of Ride New Orleans

Riders waiting for the bus at Elk Place last Tuesday on chairs from Ride New Orleans.
Photo courtesy of Ride New Orleans

She’s one of 5,000 to 7,000 bus and streetcar riders daily passing through or near corners at the intersections of Canal and South Rampart and Elk Place and Tulane Avenue. In that third of a mile, over 20 New Orleans Regional Transit Authority and Jefferson Transit bus and streetcar lines meet, with passengers originating from all over the city and from Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes.

At a press conference during Tuesday’s afternoon rush, Rachel Heiligman, Ride’s executive director, said the Elk Place transfer point is crying out for the basics that all commuters need—seats, shade, shelter from rain, maps, schedules, signage and ticket vending machines. The area’s eight street corners with bus stops have only a few dozen seats. For the most part, riders waiting for connections lean against walls or stand next to the curb. When it rains, a few of them duck into businesses. The demand for benches is so great that fourteen seats, along with a canopy, were privately built at Elk Place and Tulane by The Saratoga apartments—developed by architects Wisznia in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the theater district on that part of Canal is making a comeback. But most of the bus corners remain rundown, with property values depressed by so many people waiting, according to Ride New Orleans.

Last Tuesday morning in a separate press event, the RTA’s CEO Justin Augustine said plans are under way to build a downtown transit center for riders, depending on federal funding. In the meantime, RTA hopes to install another 20 new benches at Elk Place within 120 days at a cost of $16,000.

When asked about that last week, RTA spokeswoman Patrice Bell Mercadel said the cost of the new benches is an estimate and their placement is pending approval. As for the hub, “we’ll seek federal funding and other funding sources applicable to such a project,” she said. “It’s too early in the process to estimate costs.”

Before Ride’s press conference, Fred Neal Jr., a Ride board member, said Veolia and the RTA have done a good job of revitalizing public transit since Katrina. Bus and streetcar drivers are clearly dedicated to serving the public, he said. But the system needs to treat riders with respect by meeting their basic needs, especially at stops. Veolia Transportation has operated the city’s transit under a management contract with the RTA since October 2008.

City Council members LaToya Cantrell, James Gray, Susan Guidry and Kristin Palmer spoke at the RIDE conference and cited a lack of dignity for transit users at the Elk Place intersection. Since the hub is in her District B, Cantrell has heard an earful about few seats and little shelter during long waits. Riders and area pedestrians say they’re concerned about safety. Current conditions are unacceptable, Cantrell said.

Last Tuesday, lots of commuters standing near stops made sidewalks difficult to navigate in spots. Litter, broken payphones and barren walls contributed to a frayed scene. Drugs were offered in hushed tones by dealers nearby.

A downtown survey of 223 riders in mid-November 2012 found that 68% desire more seating, 67 percent want a countdown on when their bus will arrive, 62 percent want shorter waits, 58 percent would like better lighting and 54 percent want large shaded areas. At that time, the Elk Place stops had been temporarily moved to Canal between Marais and North Robertson because of Loyola streetcar line construction.

For most riders, Elk Place is a transfer point rather than a destination. Fifty three percent of those surveyed make one transfer there to reach their target. while 28 percent switch twice—meaning they take three buses or streetcars to their destination. And alarmingly, 8% said they transfer three or more times on one way of their trip.

The survey found that 28 percent of passengers wait between 30 minutes to an hour at Elk Place to catch their next ride.

Mayor Landrieu’s administration supports a new center. “As part of a long-term solution to modernize the public transit system, the City and RTA are reviewing a proposal to create a consolidated CBD transit hub,” deputy mayor Cedric Grant said last week. “Our goal is to work with all of the stakeholders involved to make the downtown public transit system more efficient and rider friendly.”

Building a hub would likely run into the millions of dollars. In Lafayette, the Rosa Parks Multi-Modal Transportation Center was completed in October 2011 at a cost of $8.1 million after more than 20 years of planning. The complex, which is an addition to an Amtrak station, has bus bays, rider amenities and a two-story building housing a post office. The project was funded by the Federal Transit Administration; American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or stimulus funds; the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority and local tax dollars.

A New Orleans terminal wouldn’t need mail operations since the city’s main post office is nearby on Loyola Avenue. Something like the River Cities Travel Center in Little Rock, Ark., which opened in year 2000 at a cost of $4 million, might work here. Funded with $3.2 million from the feds and the rest in local money, it has bus bays, rider services and landscaping.

During last Tuesday’s afternoon rush, as commuters waited for buses that soon become full, new Loyola line streetcars whizzed by with few riders. That federally funded stretch, which opened early last year before Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, has large solar-heated shelters with seats and maps.

As for Tiynishia Wells from New Orleans East, she plans to find a job after graduation and will save for a car. In the meantime, Wells is thankful that most of her high school courses are online so she doesn’t have to travel with too many books. To learn more about ideas for a new downtown transit hub and to contribute your own, visit the web at http://rideneworleans.org.

This article originally published in the April 21, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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