New Orleans Regional Transit Authority officials on Tuesday fired back at a recent report questioning the value of the agency's $75 million North Rampart streetcar line and arguing that the agency’s streetcar projects in general haven't been in the best interests of local riders.
In its report, the advocacy group RIDE New Orleans asserted that the Rampart project and resulting changes to surrounding bus routes actually reduced convenient access to many jobs in nearby areas.
A handful of hospitality industry workers, armed with the report’s findings, again lambasted the authority at its Tuesday board meeting for failing to provide more frequent bus service since Hurricane Katrina.
“The RTA commonly denies our claim that New Orleans public transportation is created in favor of tourists instead of the workers, but these statistics are clear. … The Rampart line cost $75 million, but it actually decreased access to jobs,” said Ashley Pintos, a member of the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee.
Visibly exasperated, RTA General Manager Justin Augustine shot back that the Rampart line still brings riders to Canal Street, where they can transfer to numerous other lines.
He disputed RIDE’s claim that convenient access to more than 1,000 jobs was reduced when the Rampart streetcar came online, while acknowledging that the project, originally intended to take riders all the way from Canal Street to the Lower 9th Ward without forcing them to transfer to a bus, instead ended up stopping at Elysian Fields Avenue, due to limited funding.
“In terms of negative impact along the Rampart Street corridor, there is no negative impact,” he said.
“As I read the report, there are some things — and I’m not here to bash anybody’s report — but I think there’s a disconnect in terms of understanding how the system works,” Augustine said. “You hear people get up in public and then make statements as if they are fact.”
The debate over whether the authority should beef up its bus service, which serves primarily local residents, instead of adding tourist-attracting streetcar lines has played out repeatedly at board meetings over the years, but it gained steam this year after the newly formed hospitality workers group began raising the issue.
That group and RIDE both argue the RTA and its private management company, Transdev, should be providing more frequent bus service between New Orleans East and Algiers, where many hospitality workers live, and the Central Business District, where they work.
They say even the $13 million in bus service enhancements the RTA has poured into the East don’t truly meet the needs of employees seeking to get home after late-night shifts at bars, restaurants and hotels.
The RTA, in response, has cited its ongoing strategic planning process, in which officials are exploring offering cheaper on-demand transit service in certain neighborhoods during late hours when ridership is small.
Officials say the planning process will end with a transit road map that takes the entire community's needs into account, rather than the needs of the loudest groups.
Still, both groups’ persistent criticisms have spurred officials into action. Augustine revealed Tuesday that the agency is asking a wider net of service industry employers and employees how the transit system might provide them better service.
The RTA also has applied for a $14 million federal grant that would put 44 additional buses on the city’s streets, Augustine said.
Some board members — though still generally critical of the RIDE report’s claims — urged agency officials to consider putting more buses in certain areas.
And member Flozell Daniels cautioned Augustine, in particular, against appearing too defensive when transit advocates and riders voice their concerns.
“I don’t want us to get frustrated when the public is expressing their frustration, because it’s real when you’ve worked 12 hours on your feet and you have to catch the bus home,” Daniels said.