The Lens has partnered with PolitiFact for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to see if President Barack Obama has followed through on his campaign promises about the storm and the city of New Orleans.
Pledge: Improve transportation in New Orleans
Will help the New Orleans area develop regional transit partnerships so that public transit can be integrated across parish lines, providing seamless transportation options, including a possible light rail line to connect New Orleans and Baton Rouge through the petrochemical corridor in between.
Like other cities around the country, New Orleans has gotten millions of federal dollars for transportation and mass transit since President Barack Obama took office. However, that doesn’t mean he’s delivered on his promise to improve public transit in the region.
New Orleans has less than half the bus and streetcar service than before Hurricane Katrina. The only thing “regional” about the city’s transit system is a single bus route in neighboring Jefferson Parish. And there is no commuter rail line connecting New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Yet it’s hard to lay the blame wholly on the feds; some of this is due to decisions at the local and state level.
Regional transit partnerships
The name of New Orleans’ public transit agency is the Regional Transit Authority. “But it’s regional in name only,” said Rachel Heiligman, director of Ride New Orleans, a transit advocacy group.
RTA was created in the late 1970s to serve the entire metropolitan area. Cities and parishes (counties to those of you outside Louisiana) could opt into the system, but suburban parishes resisted.
Outside of New Orleans, RTA operates one bus line in Kenner, a nearby suburb. That route doesn’t connect to the ones in New Orleans.
Before Katrina, RTA and Jefferson Transit in neighboring Jefferson Parish offered a day pass for riders who use both services. That deal has not been revived since the storm.
For most New Orleanians, taking the bus to the airport — which is located outside the city — is a two-agency, two-fare and, at least, two-bus affair. That bus is run by Jefferson Transit.
For several years following Hurricane Katrina, there was a publicly funded commuter bus service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. LA Swift started in 2006, serving 12,000 riders per month.
Ridership was equal in both directions, according to a study by Ride New Orleans. “Most of the folks who were using the system were using it to get to and from work on a daily basis,” Heiligman said. “And ridership was trending upward every month, every year.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation picked up the $2.3 million annual cost of LA Swift until 2013. That year, the federal government asked the state to kick in about $750,000 annually. The state declined, and the service ended.
Other than Greyhound and Megabus, “we don’t have a good connection between New Orleans and Baton Rouge,” Heiligman said.
Seamless transportation options
In January 2013, days before the city hosted the Super Bowl, local and national dignitaries gathered downtown to celebrate the long-awaited opening of the Loyola Avenue streetcar. The project cost $60 million, $45 million of which came from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood trumpeted the new streetcar line as a major economic win for the city. He said the project showed that Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package, which created the TIGER grant program,“worked when it comes to transportation.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was more defensive. “This streetcar line is not just a red box on a rail going to nowhere,” he said, responding to criticism that the Loyola line was a “streetcar from nowhere to nowhere.”
The project added less than one mile of new streetcar track. It runs between Canal Street, a major downtown thoroughfare, and the Union Passenger Terminal, the city’s main Amtrak and Greyhound station.
As originally envisioned, the Loyola streetcar was part of a more ambitious project that would “create a seamless streetcar network, and optimize rail and bus transit operations throughout the New Orleans CBD [Central Business District] and French Quarter,” the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority said in its application for the federal grant.
RTA asked for $95 million to build about three miles of streetcar service. The project would have connected the Central Business District, French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. RTA also planned to build a bus terminal at the Union Passenger Terminal, creating a hub for Greyhound, Amtrak, local buses and streetcars.
The $45 million RTA received covered only a portion of that: Eight-tenths of a mile along Loyola Avenue. The project cost $60 million due to unexpected construction problems and pressure to open in time for the 2013 Super Bowl, forcing RTA to dip into local bond funds and reserves.
Along with Greyhound, Amtrak and the new streetcar, the intermodal hub at the Union Passenger Terminal serves just seven of RTA’s 33 bus routes.
There is no single transfer point for public transit in downtown New Orleans. Instead, there’s a “decentralized series of street corners with no wayfinding signage, no maps, no route schedule or information,” Heiligman said.
In July, RTA announced that it is again contemplating a downtown transit center. It plans to seek federal funds to pay for it.
What’s more, RTA cut bus service where it overlapped with the new streetcar.
“So riders coming from Uptown neighborhoods that used to have a one-seat transit ride to Canal Street in the CBD [Central Business District] are now sort of forced to transfer to a streetcar, to pay a higher fare for that transfer to take place and to make what is often an untimely connection,” Heiligman said.
RTA applied for TIGER grants to build a new streetcar line past the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods, but it didn’t get the money. So the agency is using about $41 million from a bond sale to pay for construction. Work is now underway.
Like the Loyola line, some have criticized that line for catering to tourists, not low-income residents without cars.
Public transit since Katrina
Ride New Orleans released its “State of Transit in New Orleans” report in August to coincide with the Katrina anniversary. It found that RTA had restored 45 percent of its service since the hurricane. That’s an improvement since last year’s report, Heiligman said, but it’s still not where it needs to be.
The report notes that while streetcar service has improved since 2005, bus service is down 65 percent from pre-Katrina levels.
Buses serve far more of the city than streetcars. Low-income neighborhoods, the ones that need transit the most, are the worst-served, the group reported.
“While streetcars remain an historic and iconic part of our transit system, they are costly to install and inflexible in providing service,” Ride New Orleans said in the report.
Since Katrina, the most successful regional partnership, the bus service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, has been shut down.
Although the city is working on its second new streetcar line since the storm, one of which was mostly funded by the federal government, the new lines don’t serve the areas where public transit has been cut. Meanwhile, bus service is significantly worse than before the storm.
In addition, Obama raised the possibility — not a promise — of a rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But as noted in previous posts on this promise, Gov. Bobby Jindal decided not to apply for $300 million in federal stimulus funds to pay for it.
Although the feds have funded public transit in New Orleans and perhaps would have paid for a regional rail line, public transit in the city is worse than before the storm. That’s partly due to state and local decisions, which is why we rate this a Compromise.
Interview with Rachel Heiligman, Ride New Orleans, June 24, 2015
Ride New Orleans, “The State of Transit in New Orleans 10 Years after Katrina,” August 2015
Ride New Orleans, “The State of Transit in New Orleans,” 2014
The Times-Picayune, “Gov. Bobby Jindal, after high-profile criticism, says no to federal money for high-speed rail system,” Aug. 22, 2009
The Lens, “‘Tourist trolley’ vs. public transit: Will locals actually use the new streetcar line?” Jan. 21, 2015
Gambit, “Feds deny grant for St. Claude streetcar expansion,” Dec. 15, 2011
The Times-Picayune, “Where to put a public transit center in downtown New Orleans?” July 29, 2015
WWL-TV, “Underground surprises sent Loyola streetcar costs soaring,” April 9, 2014
Associated Press, “New Orleans streetcar line to get Super Bowl debut,” Nov. 12, 2012
The Times-Picayune, “DOTD ends LA SWIFT service; groups say move will put commuters at disadvantage,” June 12, 2013