RTA to continue to add services demanded by its riders
2nd February 2015 · 0 Comments
By Susan Buchanan
Residents at an event organized last month by advocacy group Ride New Orleans discussed bus and streetcar service while the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority outlined what it’s doing to meet customer needs. The forum, called “Voices for Transportation Choices,” was held Saturday, January 24, at Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center in Tremé.
In a tabletop exercise, residents used RTA schedules to figure out the amount of time and number of transfers needed for typical trips to work, doctors’ offices and shopping. Crossing town from New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward or the Westbank can consume a big chunk of someone’s day, the exercise confirmed.
Ride New Orleans executive director Rachel Heiligman and her associate Matthew Hendrickson presented findings from talks with focus groups. Riders like the bus service that’s been restored or expanded since September in Hollygrove, Tremé and other neighborhoods, and they appreciate the RTA’s good drivers, along with chances to socialize on the bus, learn the city’s layout better and enjoy scenery without having to focus on driving. They like recently added shelters and new rider tools and phone applications. A commuter with a cell phone can use Transit Tracker to learn when the next bus or streetcar will arrive at a stop. Mobile RTA lets cell and smart phone users access its website.
What upsets passengers, however, are overcrowding; disjointed connections; late buses and those that don’t come at all; no service on many lines from midnight to 5:30 a.m.; limited options for the Ninth Ward; sparse Sunday service; stops without benches or shelter; and bags taking up seats. Heiligman and Hendrickson read some of the riders’ comments. A Metairie man was fired from his New Orleans job because of a chronically late bus, and a student delayed by a bus received a detention. A rider said it’s tough to reach church and recreation on Sunday.
At the event, participants said hospitality industry workers can end up walking home from the CBD after midnight.
RTA chief executive officer Justin Augustine spoke, and said he was born and raised in the city and is a child of public transit. Today he listens to grumbling about service from his mother and his staff. “I don’t mind complaints and want to hear them,” he said. Bus service was expanded last fall in response to customers’ demands, he noted. The RTA is studying options for more late-night runs.
The agency continues to build shelters at a cost of $8,000 or more apiece, Augustine said. He added that an approval process with the city’s planning department is being streamlined “so we won’t have to keep applying for each shelter individually.”
Last September, the RTA added or restored bus lines serving Algiers, Federal City, New Orleans East, Leonidas, Hollygrove, Mid-City, Tremé, Gentilly, the Seventh Ward, St. Roch, Desire, Gentilly Woods and Pontchartrain Park. Routes or timetables on the Tchoupitoulas, Magazine and Louisiana lines were changed to provide better service. Several lines were renamed to clarify routes. The Algiers Loop line is now called Algiers Point, and the Leonidas bus is now Leonidas-Tremé.
The RTA plans to build a downtown transit center with seats, next-arrival signs, air conditioning, a newsstand and television. “Buses will terminate there, and riders won’t have to walk up and down Canal St. to make their connections,” Augustine said.
As for the Rampart streetcar expansion, “construction has started, and the judge threw out an attempt to stop it, saying they didn’t have a case,” Augustine said. “The public comment period was two and a half years.” Mayor Mitch Landrieu, RTA officials and City Council members held a groundbreaking ceremony last Wednesday.
On January 16, U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown denied a temporary restraining order to halt the $41.5 million Rampart to Elysian Fields project, partly because it’s financed by local bonds and doesn’t rely on federal funds. A group of residents and American Indian tribes, fearing the line’s construction and operation could harm historic buildings and burial grounds, filed the suit on January 12. But the plaintiffs didn’t show that they would suffer irreparable damage from the work, the judge said.
The RTA wants to extend the Rampart streetcar line well above Elysian Fields along St. Claude Avenue. “We’ve had a massive fight with the railroad about Press Street,” Augustine said at the Ride event. Norfolk Southern Railway maintains a crossing at St. Claude and Press. But the dispute could be resolved, and if RTA can’t get federal funds for that leg of the line, it could be built with local resources, he said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the RTA $45 million in TIGER grants for the $53 million Loyola-Union Passenger Terminal streetcar line, completed in early 2013. The Rampart and St. Claude extensions have not been granted TIGER funds, however.
Meanwhile, the transit authority has wanted to make St. Charles Avenue streetcars accessible to disabled riders for decades, Augustine said. But limited space on the neutral ground is a challenge. “When passengers get off the streetcar, they’re practically in the street,” he noted.
Work on a future hub for riders at Canal Street and Canal Boulevard might begin this year, Augustine said. “People will no longer have to run across lanes of traffic to catch a bus there,” he said.
At the Ride event, panelist April White of the Faubourg Lafitte Tenants Association said many seniors don’t qualify for the RTA’s curbside LIFT service. “If you can walk two blocks, you don’t meet the criteria,” she said. She also said bus drivers pull away while seniors are standing, looking for a seat. “I fell on the Tchoupitoulas bus, and they had to pick me up off the floor,” said White, a senior citizen.
The RTA’s LIFT vans take qualified passengers from local addresses to other spots in Orleans Parish. The fare for the shared vans is $2.00 one way.
Panelist Arthur Johnson, executive director of the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, said a post-Katrina reduction in that area’s bus service has hurt residents. “We have many seniors and retirees, not a lot of vehicles, and we’re a food desert so people have to travel to buy groceries,” he said.
The RTA has lots of coals in the fire now. “I want everything you want,” Augustine told the group assembled at Ride’s event. But buses, streetcar construction and shelters are expensive, and money is tight. The agency will continue to seek federal funding in competition with transit authorities in other cities.
The Crescent City’s public transit is managed by a public-private partnership. Transdev North America, formerly Veolia Transportation, runs operations, while the RTA Board of Commissioners approves major initiatives, capital purchases, the budget and fares.
Rachel Heiligman invited anyone interested in the future of public transit to consider joining Ride’s Action Committee. To learn more about Ride, visit rideneworleans.org on the web.
This article originally published in the February 2, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.