Expansive plans and recent board appointments are promising signs at New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA), transportation advocates RIDE New Orleans say, but the city transit organization must continue to work to increase rider access to jobs throughout the region.
In its annual "State of Transit" report released this week, RIDE presents a cautiously optimistic read on RTA developments over the past several months. The group praised RTA's December adoption of a 20-year plan that includes guidelines and goals for improving transit in the city over the next two decades; the appointment of an interim executive director and new board members with ties to the rider and paratransit rider communities; and the mayor's focus on transit issues via the creation of a city Office of Transportation.
However, the report points to stalled progress in improving access to jobs for transit-reliant New Orleanians — a key metric in a city with high poverty rates and a percentage of carless households nearly twice the national average, the report said. According to RIDE's calculations, transit riders in the parish can reach just 12 percent of the region's jobs in 30 minutes or less, a figure that has been basically unchanged for the past two years.
"As long as we're not improving transit access to jobs, the majority of riders will not feel tangible benefits and many will view other improvements as mere window dressing," the report said.
In its report, RIDE describes the adoption of the 20-year strategic mobility plan, or SMP, as a "major shift" at RTA "that — if followed and implemented — will make a big difference for the riding public." The advocacy group praised the SMP's goals for improving prospects for transit commuters, which aspire to make 60 percent of regional jobs accessible by transit within 60 minutes by 2027. RIDE also supports the SMP's benchmarks for improvements to reliability and on-time performance, which the advocacy group has long argued supports riders' ability to succeed at work.
But RIDE stressed the importance of "actual implementation" of the SMP, including a focus on less-complex goals that can be realized in the short term, making a more detailed cost analysis available to the public and the successful execution of a planned comprehensive operations analysis (COA) that studies routes and ridership patterns in detail, so "the promise created by last year's strong planning process will [not] be squandered," the report said.
"Riders need implementation and real results today, not 10 years from now," RIDE said.
The organization pointed to only slight increases in the percentage of total weekly trips and still-low numbers of high-frequency lines (just five, as compared to 19 before Hurricane Katrina) as signs that the system is not operating in a way that suggests real improvements. Despite an overall increase in RTA ridership, RIDE also emphasized falling ridership numbers on traditionally "robust" routes such as the 11-Magazine and 39-Tulane as a troubling indicator that should be explored.
The advocacy group also called out RTA for a recent study of a prospective extension of the Rampart streetcar line down St. Claude, a study that it says deviates from the objectives and processes outlined in the SMP. In its report, RIDE called the study "a display of tone deafness" that casts doubt on RTA's overall commitment to the SMP and would not improve overall transit in the city.
"Recent streetcar construction in New Orleans omits dedicated lanes and other features that could make streetcars more effective transit," the report said. "The result is that access to jobs has not improved despite $92.5 million in investment in new streetcar tracks."
Going forward, RTA also should commit to discussions of long-term revenue issues, RIDE said.
"To deliver truly equitable service that can be a game-changer for regional transit riders ... we must recognize that increased spending is a necessity," the report said.
Overall, RIDE said recent months may have been a "turning point" but emphasized the importance of following through: of pursuing the goals set out in the SMP in a deliberate way, incorporating new findings from processes such as the COA and looking for creative solutions such as moving bus stops to the far side of intersections to improve travel times.
RIDE also encouraged further cooperation between RTA and other providers in the region, such as Jefferson Transit (which currently is undergoing its own strategic planning process). To that end, New Orleans City Council Vice President Helena Moreno announced the filing of a resolution encouraging coordination between the city, RTA and the Jefferson Parish Council earlier Monday.
RIDE hosts a formal release for its report Aug. 7 at 8 a.m. at the National World War II Museum's BB's Stage Door Canteen. At the event, RIDE staff and city leaders including transportation committee chair and District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, HousingNOLA Executive Director Andreanecia Morris, RTA Board of Commissioners Chairman Flozell Daniels Jr. as well as Neal and Bryan will discuss what's next for public transit in New Orleans.
"We're moving into what looks like a promising period for New Orleans transit," RIDE board president Jennifer Terry wrote in the report. "The momentum is there, but the victory still has not been won."