(Lens file photo.) Credit: Della Hasselle / The Lens

Before COVID-19 came to New Orleans, very late at night, in the hours after the turn of the last white tablecloth at Galatoire’s, but before the first baristas arrived at Community Coffee, the Algiers Owl bus was a staple in the flow of the city’s service industry. On the weekends, the late-night, West Bank bus was packed with line cooks, busboys, bartenders, and hotel workers seizing the last chance to cross the river before being stranded on the East Bank until the sun rose and the first bus and ferry arrived the next morning. 

Public transportation systems across the country have taken major hits during the pandemic, losing rider fares as workers stayed home. In New Orleans, the system suffered major revenue losses as our sales taxes dropped by as much as 25 percent. 

Late last year, Congress approved a $14 billion appropriation of emergency funding for transportation, with $26 million coming to aid the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. While this is a great start, it isn’t enough. The American Public Transportation Association estimates that it will take no less than $39.3 billion to ensure the survival of our transit systems across the nation. The $30 billion in transit relief funding, allocated under the $ 1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden this week,  is an important and necessary step in the right direction.

Before the pandemic, local transit advocate,  RIDE New Orleans, found that the average transit-reliant New Orleanian reaches only12 percent of the region’s jobs in 30 minutes or fewer. The average car-owning New Orleanian has full access to economic opportunity, reaching 89 percent of the region’s jobs within that time period. The New Links network redesign has helped point us in a much better direction. We cannot afford, morally or economically, to regress. 

In a new report, TransitCenter found that across 10 U.S. metro regions, more than 3 million households and 1.4 million jobs will lose access to frequent transit without emergency funding. According to the report, “Second-and-third shift workers would lose an affordable way to commute, and households without vehicles would have an even harder time meeting everyday needs.” 

The New Orleans Data Center has found that an average of twenty percent of residents who live between Algiers Point and Old Aurora don’t have access to a car. For these New Orleanians, public transit is a lifeline to the job centers of downtown. In Algiers and across our city, healthcare and service industry workers disproportionately make up our transit riding population. So, for Algerines, public transit is more than a service. It’s a vital connection to jobs across the Mississippi River that keeps food on the table for thousands of families. It delivers workers to jobs in hospitals, hotels, schools, restaurants, and the grocery stores that our city relies on. 

It could be a couple years before sales tax revenues and passenger fares pick up enough to restore service to normal. Thankfully, our federal leadership is investing in these essential connections because without a workforce, we can’t get back to work. The COVID relief bill is a much-needed lifeline for our transit system and transit systems like it across the country. But a more sustained effort will be crucial to ensuring an equitable return to normal for transit riders.

New Orleanians know about recovery and must begin to envision what it will mean for our city.

We know the opportunities it creates to address inequities– or to continue injustices.  Equitable, sustainable federal aid is crucial to ensuring that jobs return to post-pandemic New Orleans and all of our people have a chance to get back to work.

Kelsey Foster is the Executive Director of the Algiers Economic Development Foundation.