Nina Red, like other residents of Algiers, frequently travels across the Crescent City Connection. But without a car, that means relying on the Regional Transit Authority bus. With a mix of delays, overcrowding, and a lack of basic amenities like bus shelters, the journey can be an exercise in frustration.
“We don’t have shelters, like we should, because it rains and of course it’s hot,” says the retired medical transcriptionist, who is on the board of the transportation advocacy group Ride New Orleans. “People are on top of people in the evening.”
Riders and experts alike say that even after 13 years, the New Orleans area transit system has never fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. The catastrophic flooding not only damaged transit infrastructure but also substantially cut the city’s population and, by extension, revenue to the sales-and-hotel-tax-funded RTA for years. That means commuters still deal with reduced bus service and more convoluted transit lines compared to the years before the storm.
“The Esplanade bus ends up at the Walmart on Tchoupitoulas,” says Ed Branley, author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line. “That used to be three different bus lines, and it’s all consolidated into one now.”
The system has also failed to keep up with a housing crunch that’s pushed commuters farther away from downtown jobs. The RTA was by no means perfect before Katrina, when it saw frequent passenger complaints and at times struggled with funding issues, but many commuters and experts now look back wistfully on the transit system of the early 2000s.
“The affordable housing crisis is being exacerbated by the compromised, weakened transit system,” says Andreanecia Morris, executive director of the advocacy group HousingNOLA. “New Orleans had a lot of naturally occurring affordable housing pre-Katrina. We had a pretty solid transit system pre-Katrina.”
Today, according to an August report from Ride New Orleans, the average transit rider in New Orleans can get to only 12% of the region’s jobs in half an hour or less, and only 42% in an hour during typical morning commute times. With a car, that commuter could reach 89% of the region’s jobs in half an hour. Commuters without a car in suburban Jefferson Parish, with much more limited transit service, can only get to 4.6% of area jobs in half an hour. And those in nearby St. Bernard Parish, which has only a single bus line, can get to less than 1% of the region’s jobs within that time.
“We’ve got a big disparity there and a big problem in the lack of access,” says Alex Posorske, executive director of Ride New Orleans, pointing out that about 19% of households in the city don’t have a private car.
“A lot of other households, in what’s a very poor city, are one month’s bad luck away from not having a car,” he says.
The RTA just completed what it calls a Strategic Mobility Plan (SMP) for the next 20 years, and local agencies are in the early stages of a so-called Comprehensive Operations Analysis that will delve into details of future routes. Observers say the RTA has its high points: at $1.25 per ride, it charges one of the cheapest fares in the nation, and its late night offerings and the extent of its network are unusual for a city of New Orleans’ size.“For a city our size, we’ve got a little more service per capita than you’ll see in other places,” Posorske says.
But recent moves by the transit agency have left some riders skeptical. The streetcar line along Rampart Street and Loyola Avenue, finished in 2016, has been widely criticized. While New Orleans transit has always served a mix of residents and visitors—the tourist-heavy St. Charles streetcar line has the system’s highest ridership—many residents say they would have preferred to see the funds spent on improved bus service.
And questions remain as to how the RTA, which almost exclusively serves New Orleans and the Jefferson Parish city of Kenner (in addition to airport routes, the agency has long operated local bus service within Kenner) can be integrated with the Jefferson Transit agency that runs buses in the rest of the parish. The two transit systems began testing a common fare pass and transit information hotline this fall, and the RTA recently extended service along the Tulane Avenue bus route to Jefferson Highway and Causeway Boulevard, just past Ochsner Medical Center. But many passengers on other routes will still need to change buses shortly after crossing the parish line, a nuisance acknowledged by officials in both communities.
“It doesn’t matter to anyone who rides transit who runs anything,” says Sharon Leader, director of transit for Jefferson Parish. “They want to be able to get where they need to go when they need to go.”
FROM NOPSI TO RTA
While problems were exacerbated following Katrina, complaints aren’t a new phenomenon: a lament about “dirty, old and rickety” streetcars appeared in the Picayune back in 1887. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is considered the oldest continuously operating streetcar system in the world, in operation since 1835. It has run on electrical power since the 1890s, when privately owned streetcar networks criss-crossed the city.
“The substitution of electric for mule power on all these streets will naturally afford rapid transit in many portions of the city,” the Picayune reported in 1892. The newspaper predicted that speedy electrified streetcars would also boost property values and put New Orleanians to work upgrading the existing infrastructure. Rail company president Joseph Hernandez told the Picayune in no uncertain terms that the new transportation technology wouldn’t be available to New Orleanians “for many years to come” if the City Council didn’t authorize electrification on the company’s terms. Like some of today’s ride-hailing entrepreneurs, Hernandez seemed intent on convincing the city it could either accept his transportation system on his terms or be left behind as other municipalities moved forward with the new technology.
“It amuses me to see the dilatory fashion in which the city fathers are handling the ordinance,” he said. “The councilmen have attached, or rather attempted to attach a host of qualifications to the franchise for which we have applied in order to introduce the latest scientific methods of transit into New Orleans. Really, they seem to think we will accept whatever modifications they chose to make. They ought to be made to realize that the Carrollton Road is governed by serious-minded and sensible men, who, when they framed the bill now before the council, did so carefully and in a business-like manner. We tried to say in it exactly what we meant, and in as few words as possible. If the council are wise they will realize this, and that what we say we mean.”
Some real estate prices indeed soared by as much as a factor of 10 near the Carrollton Avenue end of the line, according to contemporary newspaper reports cited in James Guilbeau’s history The Saint Charles Streetcar. Real estate listings promoted proximity to the streetcar lines. By 1900, Guilbeau writes, passengers could ride from Canal Street to Carrollton Avenue and Willow Street in just half an hour—a streetcar trip that today takes about 43 minutes, according to RTA schedules. That year the carnival Krewe of Nereus mounted its floats on electric streetcar floats “brilliantly illuminated by the same mysterious power, the first such display in the world’s history,” as the Picayune reported.
In 1902, the railroads were consolidated under common ownership in what, after a 1905 reorganization, came to be known as the New Orleans Railway and Light Company, providing both streetcar service and electrical power. Its 191 miles of streetcar lines served 64 million total passengers in 1905, according to The Streetcars of New Orleans (by Louis Hennick and Elbridge Charlton), a nostalgic 1965 history.
Another reorganization in 1922 put the streetcars in the hands of the newly formed utility New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI), which also provided electricity and gas service throughout the city for most of the 20th century. City and streetcar officials brought in a New York transit consultancy—newspaper reports frequently referred to a team of 35 statisticians—which found that the then-critical streetcar system was too small for the growing city’s needs. “New Orleans is like an overgrown boy in clothes too small for him,” a Times-Picayune reporter wrote of the transit system on reading the report in 1923. One of the company’s consultants also famously described the city’s residents as “human bats,” referring to the unusual amount of transit riders late at night.
But streetcar ridership peaked a few years later in 1926, Hennick and Charlton reported, when 148 million total passengers rode on NOPSI’s 26 streetcar lines and five bus lines. Soon, car ownership began to eat into public transit use. A violent, months-long 1929 transit strike—now most remembered for the reported birth of the po’ boy sandwich, said to have been served to strikers by sympathetic restaurant owners—drastically cut usage for that year. Ridership continued to decline during the Depression years, since high unemployment meant fewer commuters and fewer shopping trips, though the system would see a new burst of passengers during World War II.
“When WWII ended in 1945, there was a fanatic return to the private auto, at great expense to the taxpayer who had to pour millions of dollars into elevated expressways,” wrote Hennick and Charlton. “All this sacrifice to avoid a few minutes of waiting—while the car and bus fare in New Orleans remained a whopping seven cents!”
In addition to growing car ownership, the postwar period brought the rapid replacement of streetcar lines by NOPSI-operated buses, similar to other cities across the country. Transit ridership overall dropped, but not nearly as precipitously as elsewhere, according to a 1963 NOPSI report. Still, the company made clear that low population density meant a rail resurgence wasn’t in the cards for New Orleans.
“New Orleans is and will very likely continue to be principally a city of private dwellings,” according to the report. “It does not have the large high rise suburban apartment districts so prevalent in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago; nor is there evidence that such districts are being planned for the future in the outlying areas. Consequently, it is extremely doubtful that any widely separated, highly concentrated centers of origin and destination, as are necessary to support the operation of a high volume rail rapid transit system, will develop within the New Orleans metropolitan area during the next 20 years.”
The RTA was by no means perfect before Katrina, when it saw frequent passenger complaints and at times struggled with funding issues, but many commuters and experts now look back wistfully on the transit system of the early 2000s.
Rapidly growing Jefferson Parish saw its population rise from just above 50,000 in 1940 to more than 337,000 by 1970 amid the postwar suburban boom. But it was built around private cars, with minimal bus service, and over time some residents came to see transit access as more of a liability than the property value booster it was in decades past. “Basically the whole white flight mentality grew up with that mentality of black people ride the bus, white people don’t,” Branley says.
And in Orleans Parish, NOPSI electric and gas customers effectively subsidized the utility’s transit operations through their monthly bills into the mid-1970s. Then, a transit strike made the company’s transit operations run further into the red than usual. Customers noticed they were paying their usual utility rates and unsuccessfully requested refunds of the portion usually spent on transit. Once the strike was done, NOPSI called for an end to the unusual arrangement, arguing a public authority should take over that side of its operations. “It didn’t want to be in the transit business,” Branley says.
By the end of 1976, NOPSI threatened to end transit service altogether. City officials reluctantly agreed to take over a portion of the costs, which would be partially offset by federal funds. The national fuel crisis soon sent costs soaring, while NOPSI gas and electric rates stayed fixed, meaning less NOPSI money for transit. The city struggled to come up with its growing share of the funds. At the same time, New Orleans couldn’t claim many federal grants available for improvements to public transit systems, since the infrastructure was technically owned by NOPSI, a private corporation.
In 1979, the Regional Transit Authority was technically established, with representation from Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Tammany parishes. But the new RTA had minimal funding, certainly not enough to buy equipment and take over operations from NOPSI and the private companies that ran suburban buses. Officials struggled for years to find local funds for the agency, with the suburban parishes wary of sending taxpayer funds to the city. In 1982, St. Tammany voted to exit the RTA altogether.
By the next year, NOPSI, the city, and the RTA agreed to a deal that saw the new agency take over New Orleans transit service as of July 1, 1983. The plan was funded in part with federal funds and a New Orleans voter-approved sales tax. The system’s 60 cent fare remained unchanged. Jefferson Parish never agreed to merge its buses into the RTA, though Kenner did join the system. Parish officials said the RTA had higher operating costs than Jefferson’s existing private bus operators and voters would be unwilling to pay the difference.
“Such a small amount of people ride the buses in Jefferson parish, a majority of the people would not support the taxes to operate a real expensive service,” said Tony Giusti, a member of the parish’s Transportation Advisory Committee, in 1985.
Yet in 1989, with dire cutbacks looming for a Jefferson Transit system that reportedly no more than 4% of the parish’s population actually used, voters unexpectedly approved a two-mill property tax hike to cover transit costs. They also approved an additional mill (meaning a dollar tax on each $1,000 dollars of assessed value) to transport riders with disabilities.
The late 1980s also saw the first expansion of streetcar service in New Orleans in decades, with the debut of the tourist-friendly Riverfront line in 1988. But the RTA still struggled to attract commuters, with annual ridership falling from more than 70 million in the early 1980s to just 59 million at the end of the decade. The agency cut back on seemingly basic expenses: In 1989, the Times-Picayune reported the transit authority’s buses and streetcars hadn’t been cleaned in two years. A strict ban on eating and drinking on the vehicles reportedly helped keep them clean, while reports of teenagers arrested for snacking on the bus made national news. Service cuts and fare increases soon followed, with the cost of a ride rising from 60 cents in 1990 to $1 by 1992. The Times-Picayune regularly published letters complaining of reckless, rude drivers and overcrowded vehicles.
The RTA spent much of the 1990s struggling to curtail deficit spending without cutting service, though, like today, fares remained a bargain compared to many other cities. The RTA also saw a 22% ridership drop between 1995 and 2001, while Jefferson Parish saw a 16% decrease, the agencies reported in 2002. Nationwide, transit ridership rose 23% during that period, Times-Picayune reported. On the plus side, restored Canal Street streetcar service in 2004 brought 125,000 riders in just its first week and seemed to bolster the RTA’s reputation.
“It’s definite that you could say the service on Canal has improved since the streetcars were brought back,” says Branley. “The Canal line is just leaps and bounds improvement over the buses.”
STRUGGLES AFTER THE STORM
The next year came Hurricane Katrina, devastating the city, killing more than 1,000 people, and forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate. Transit service was out altogether for more than a month, gradually resuming starting in October 2005 with free rides subsidized by FEMA. Transdev, a company based in France, was brought in to manage and run the agency, which it does to this day. The RTA wouldn’t resume charging fares until the federal subsidies ended in August 2006; but with the city’s population and tourism levels down, sales tax and fares couldn’t sustain pre-storm levels of service.
According to RIDE data, the RTA is budgeted to spend just under $96 million in 2018, compared to about $116 million in 2005 which, adjusting for inflation, would be about $158 million in today’s dollars. “I think by any objective measure transit was much, much better for transit-dependent riders before the storm,” Posorske says.
Jefferson Parish’s system struggled as well: even today, Leader says the parish has 41 total transit vehicles, compared to 63 before the storm. At the same time, the parish has grown more diverse by most measures, including absorbing more working class residents and some nightlife workers displaced from New Orleans by the housing crunch. But the transit system, still reliant on the millages dating back to the 1980s, hasn’t been able to restore pre-storm levels of service, let alone add new service to serve more commuters traveling at off peak hours.
“We know we need more vehicles because we have fewer on our major routes, which on the East Bank is mainly Veterans and on the West Bank is mainly Lapalco—we have less service on both those routes than we did before the storm,” says Leader. “We need good weekend service, and we also need more later evening service, called owl service. We just really don’t have any of that. We certainly don’t have any 24-7 service, but we don’t even have any late night.”
In New Orleans proper, as tax revenue and ridership has rebounded, the RTA has recently restored 24-hour service on major lines. Those include the Canal Street streetcar and on buses along major thoroughfares like Broad Street, Elysian Fields Avenue, St. Bernard Avenue, and Galvez Street. It’s boosted overnight service to New Orleans East and Algiers. It’s also recently added 24-hour service along the Riverfront streetcar line, designed to cater to late night workers in the French Quarter. Hospitality workers in particular have complained about a lack of late night options, and many passengers still pine for the level of service before the storm.
The new strategic plan calls for increased service along some of what it deems high-capacity transit corridors: Canal Street, Tulane Avenue, Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue, St. Charles Avenue, the West Bank Expressway, Veterans Boulevard out to Louis Armstrong International Airport, Broad Street and Chef Menteur Highway, and from Claiborne Street out to Elmwood. Other routes, called select service routes, would also see improvements.
“Those are routes that we’d have operating 24 hours per day, and during the peak period they would operate every 15 minutes and in the off period they would operate every 20 minutes,” says Transdev Vice President Adelee Le Grand.
Among the RTA’s goals are getting passengers to 60% of the area’s jobs in an hour and boosting weekday ridership 50%, to an average of 96,000 total passengers daily. The plan has won praise from groups like RIDE—“With 129 specific implementable action items, the SMP creates a real road map to tangible improvements,” the group said in its recent report—though some of those items are slated for far in the future.
“I’m not worried about money being put in to make the bus so comfortable to ride or whatever they want to do,” says Algiers commuter Deborah Williams. “I just want a reliable bus to show up to take me where I’m going.”
The first high capacity routes are scheduled for upgrades between 2023 and 2027, the same time the plan anticipates new express routes to Chalmette, Slidell, and the Mandeville-Covington area and a new Canal Street-Gretna ferry. But the Rampart-St. Claude high capacity route and the three venturing into Jefferson Parish aren’t slated for implementation until sometime between 2028 and 2040.
In the short term, the RTA also plans to add new bus shelters, thanks in part to a city zoning change shortening the permitting process. Simple efficiency improvements could be coming in the next few years, like tweaking traffic lights to give transit vehicles the right of way and having passengers at busy stops pay before they board rather than fumble for change once on board. A new smartphone app lets passengers track bus and streetcar movements in real time and pay for tickets with credit or debit cards, and vehicles are now equipped with automated stop announcements. Still, some passengers say they’d have preferred the money were invested in more reliable service.
“I’m not worried about money being put in to make the bus so comfortable to ride or whatever they want to do,” says Algiers commuter Deborah Williams. “I just want a reliable bus to show up to take me where I’m going.”
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
The RTA does appear to have backed away from any plans to soon extend the Rampart Street streetcar line down St. Claude Avenue, unless that’s recommended by the Comprehensive Operations Analysis. The route is widely criticized as a poor investment: it partially overlaps several bus routes and only runs roughly every 20 minutes in each direction. Despite the large number of bars and nightlife venues near its route, it ends service at midnight, too early for many workers or customers to travel home or to their hotels.
The line did spur investment and non-streetcar travel improvements along Rampart and Loyola streets, says James Amdal, an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute. He estimates there’s been about $2.7 billion invested “in that less than a mile connection between [Union Passenger Terminal] and Canal Street” by developers who see the upgrade as a municipal vote of confidence in the neighborhood. Now that public transit is back in vogue, thanks in part to stereotypes of car-free millennials, rail projects can mark neighborhoods around the country as ripe for investment, or gentrification. “It doesn’t really have much to do with the ridership,” he says. “What it has to do with is the permanence of the investment which the developers gravitate towards.” The Rampart portion of the line, too, enabled officials to revamp lighting and pedestrian walkways along that street during the construction, he says. “I think you could make an argument that the investment along Rampart was smart, just not in terms of justifying with ridership, because it will never justify itself by ridership,” he says.
The planned operations analysis could help the RTA and other local agencies narrow down options for making service improvements happen, from light rail to buses with dedicated lanes, and could help the transit agencies identify simple route tweaks that could improve service in the near term. The analysis can also help determine where funds will come from for the more drastic improvements, which is still somewhat of an open question.
“At the end of the day, to implement everything that’s in the strategic plan, it’s going to require us to find additional funding,” says Le Grand. “We already know that.”
For more info on the Regional Transit Authority, check out norta.com; for more info on Jefferson Transit, check out jeffersontransit.org; for more info on Ride New Orleans, check out rideneworleans.org.
Top image: a streetcar decorated with palm fronds, spanish moss and flowers outside of the Arabella Street station, circa 1930s. (Courtesy of The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1979.325.6193)