Budget constraints are forcing RTA chief Justin Augustine to curtail planned expansions, he told City Council on Wednesday. Photo by Ariella Cohen

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

The city’s transit chief delivered a blunt message this week: Don’t expect service to return to pre-Katrina levels in parts of the city where significant numbers of people haven’t come home.

“Unfortunately, what happens is a mindset that says, if I had it before Katrina I should have it again,” New Orleans Regional Transit Authority CEO Justin Augustine said Wednesday, at a City Council hearing on his agency’s 2012 budget. “We can’t afford to do that.”

Augustine spoke as part of the council’s three-week, department-by-department review of 2012 spending. Though the RTA operates with revenue from outside the general fund, including dedicated hotel/motel and sales tax revenues, as well as passenger fares, charter fees, and advertising, its annual budget— $76 million  in the coming year— still requires council approval.

Augustine is the first official to tell the City Council, in no uncertain terms, that expectations must be lowered. More services will not return unless population does, he said.

Pre-Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward had five bus routes. Now there are two.

“We can’t afford to have five bus lines for 25,000 fewer people,” he said.

Augustine was just as candid in explaining the RTA’s recent decision to scale back a plan to bring streetcar service to the North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue corridor. Instead of an earlier plan to extend the so-called French Quarter loop to Press Street and then, in a second phase, to Poland Avenue in the Bywater, the current plan has the first phase of construction ending at Elysian Fields Avenue. The change was made in response to unanticipated construction costs on a Loyola Avenue streetcar line now under construction. “It cost $49 million to do 1.6 miles on Loyola,” Augustine said. “We didn’t expect that.”

If more funding is found, the $98.5 million Poland Avenue plan will be resurrected. Augustine said Wednesday that he would find out by the end of the year if the transit agency received a federal grant that would pay 80 percent of the estimated cost.  A federally mandated environmental assessment of the Poland Avenue extension has already been done, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said.

“We have the plan, but we can only spend the money we have,” Augustine said. “That’s the bottom line. We’re tapped out.”

The RTA will rely on passenger fares for 22 percent of its budget in 2012.  Sales tax makes up another 70 percent of its revenue stream. Collections of both depend on population. Even without stretching its budget to cover service restorations in areas that have lost population, the RTA will have to raid its reserves to cover a $1 million shortfall this year. Pending slashes in federal transportation spending and a reduction in state funding for paratransit services for disabled Medicaid users will likely mean more financial problems in the near future, Augustine said.

Transit advocates say the current financial strain points to the need for the RTA to create a master plan for transit that includes new sources of local funding.

“The RTA is currently out of options,”  Jacquelyn Dadakis, a board member of the advocacy nonprofit Transit for Nola,  said. “If we want to return to having a world-class system, we need to identify additional funding locally.”

Councilwoman Stacy Head seconded the call for a master plan on Wednesday, and made a further recommendation that the RTA get some new blood in its boardroom.  “If you were there when inappropriate and ultimately judged to be illegal activities were happening, you shouldn’t be,” Head said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal was a popular whipping boy throughout Wednesday’s hearing, with officials from the New Orleans Council on Aging and other agencies citing increased financial pressures due to reductions in state funding.

“The state decides it doesn’t want to pay, but these elderly citizens still need to get to their doctors appointments,” Augustine said.

Also strapped in 2012 will be the Arts Council of New Orleans, which will see a 20 percent reduction in the amount of funding it receives from the city’s general fund, from $500,000 in 2011 to $402,108 proposed for 2012.

The $98,000 reduction will eliminate project assistance grants for art programming done by Bywater Neighborhood Association, St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and Young Aspirations/Young Artists, Arts Council Director Mary Len Costa said. Most of the programs were to provide arts education to young people. She and members of the council questioned the decision to increase spending on the New Orleans Police Department while spending less on youth programming at a time when violence among young people is on the rise.

Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell cited the Halloween slaying of two young men, within feet of police officers in the French Quarter.

“We’re talking about giving the New Orleans Police Department $120 million to lock people up but we can’t find $98,000 to teach art to our children,” she said.