The word "regional" in the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's name has always expressed more of an aspiration than a reality.
When it was founded in the 1970s, the agency was envisioned by proponents as a comprehensive transit system connecting Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes, but anyone who commutes across parish lines knows that has never really happened.
Now, though, there's a fresh push to restore one of the agency’s few parish-to-parish connections, in the form of a single pass that riders can use on both New Orleans and Jefferson buses. They still would have to change buses at the parish line in most cases, but they would not have to pay a separate fare.
The single pass system was scrapped after Hurricane Katrina, but the idea of bringing it back has raised some hope that the RTA might finally start to live up to its name.
However, ending the practice of forcing riders to pay a separate fare to transfer to a bus in an adjacent parish is only a step toward true regionalism, advocates say.
A more comprehensive plan might see more of the RTA’s buses go past the parish line down Jefferson Highway or Veterans Memorial Boulevard. It also could ease connections for St. Bernard and St. Tammany residents looking to get into New Orleans, and vice versa.
The RTA could take all of those parishes' transit operations under its umbrella, as originally intended, the regionalism advocates say.
If an effort to revive the single pass proves feasible, it could jump-start a bigger discussion.
“The scope of this effort is only Jefferson Parish and Orleans Parish, but there have been conversations about a broader regional pass,” said Adelie LeGrand, chief strategy officer for Transdev, the private company that runs the RTA’s operations.
Although the RTA was designed with all four parishes in mind, parish participation is optional. Only Orleans and the independently governed city of Kenner use the agency’s buses, although three Jefferson Parish appointees sit on the RTA’s board.
Jefferson runs its own bus system with the help of Transdev, the same firm that manages the RTA's buses and streetcars. St. Tammany and St. Bernard also run their own smaller transit operations.
Previous attempts to broaden the RTA's reach have fizzled out amid interparish squabbles over money and control. Even getting the authority off the ground in the early 1970s was a challenge, after the four parishes couldn’t agree on its financing ahead of a deadline set by the Legislature, according to a Times-Picayune account at the time.
Without a consensus, the authority self-destructed. It was not revived until 1979, under the law that exists today.
While there have been some attempts in the years since then to involve other parishes — the RTA tried to expand its service into St. Bernard in 2005, and Jefferson seemed to be warming under former President Aaron Broussard’s administration to the idea of the agency taking over the suburban parish's then-troubled transit system entirely — only the barest hints of regionalism, like the Orleans-Jefferson day pass, actually emerged.
Restoration of the pass is seen by advocates as part of a larger regional conversation, one that would end in better connections among the RTA, Jefferson's JeT system and the St. Bernard and St. Tammany operations.
The pass is “desperately needed, and we should have done it six months ago, or two years ago,” said Alex Posorske of RIDE New Orleans, adding that his group is also lobbying the RTA to run buses a few blocks out Jefferson Highway to Ochsner Medical Center.
Sharon Leader, director of Jefferson's Transit Department, also said the RTA has dragged its feet, calling it “unconscionable” that riders have had to pay extra fares to cross parish lines.
RTA officials didn’t respond to questions about hold-ups in the process. But many questions about the pass’s implementation remain, such as the appropriate price for a daylong pass and whether it should come in the form of a physical ticket or a smartphone app.
Perhaps the biggest questions, yet again, involve money and control — such as how Jefferson and Orleans would split the costs and revenue of setting up such a service in a way that is fair to both systems.
The RTA has hired at least three consultants — the firms CH2M Hill, Dikita and Kinetics Transportation Group — to help it answer those questions in the coming months.
If all goes well, the pass could be included in the 20-year strategic plan the RTA is expected — with the help of another consultant, Nelson\Nygaard — to release later this year.
The RTA's board is expected to vote on the strategic plan in late 2017 or early 2018.