Public transit in New Orleans is far less accessible than it was before Hurricane Katrina, according to a new report that lays at least part of the blame on the Regional Transit Authority’s renewed focus on picturesque streetcars over cheaper but less tourist-friendly buses.
The report, released Monday by the transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans, found a 55 percent drop in the number of trips that RTA buses and streetcars make each week compared with 2005 — a dramatic cut that leaves many residents relying on lines with infrequent service and lengthy waits.
While acknowledging some improvements, including a rosier financial picture for an agency that has seen its budget fall by about 38 percent since 2004, the report calls on officials to create a master plan for transit with input from riders.
It says the RTA should also implement some immediate changes, such as using GPS to provide more accurate information on when vehicles will arrive, and it calls on the city to support policies giving public transit priority on the roadways through dedicated lanes or tracks that don’t require streetcars to “jockey with stop-and-go traffic.”
“By narrowly focusing our capital investment on streetcar expansion, we are missing the opportunity to pursue other game-changing transit modes that can provide high-quality, rapid transit to housing and job centers across our region. And by expending increasingly larger shares of our operating budget on streetcars, we are selling bus riders short,” Ride New Orleans President Jacquelyn Dadakis wrote in an introduction to the report.
TransDev, the private company that manages the RTA’s operations, did not have an immediate response, a spokeswoman said.
The report largely focuses on the expansion of streetcar service — including the Loyola Avenue line and the line under construction on North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue, which some have argued serve mainly tourist areas — and the decline of bus service, which the report argues could be more flexibly used to serve the needs of residents.
Streetcars now offer about 3 percent more trips each week on the five completed lines than they did before Katrina, while buses are making only about 35 percent of the trips they made in 2005.
As a result, streetcars offer more frequent service, with one coming on an average of about every 17 minutes during peak hours, compared with buses, which require an average wait of about 38 minutes, according to the report.
While buses on two routes run every 15 minutes, the other lines have longer waits, and some routes have as much as a 60-minute wait time.
TransDev officials have outlined a $1 billion plan to further expand streetcar service, including an extension of the North Rampart line all the way to Chalmette, plus lines from the river to the lake on Elysian Fields Avenue and a connection from the Loyola line to Convention Center Boulevard and the Riverfront line.
Some of that planning was driven by federal grants that were made available to local governments to improve streetcar service, according to the report.
“We firmly believe that an investment of hundreds of millions of federal and local taxpayer dollars into transit should yield mobility gains including reliable and convenient service that provides a shorter commute time than existing buses and that is competitive with the automobile commute,” the report says. “So far, the streetcar expansion has proven a boon for economic development, yet has not and will not achieve a high-quality transit service as designed.”
The report calls for better integration of transit services across parish boundaries and a focus on routes and hubs that would serve commuters, including people with jobs in the health care and hospitality industries who need more early morning and late night routes than are offered.
“The (RTA) still lacks an integrated vision, guided by community priorities, and a framework with which to evaluate investment outcomes among competing interests for limited resources,” the report says.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.