The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is at a tipping point. It struggled to bring back adequate bus and streetcar service after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, and adjustments to new living patterns have come slowly. Riders have many complaints — most notably, buses not showing up on time (or at all).
In recent years, RTA has expanded service, but not enough to keep up with housing patterns. A recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center found renters now need to earn more than $19 an hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in the city. Even a one-bedroom apartment isn't affordable to many making minimum wage.
Small wonder, then, that so many in the service industry who once lived in Faubourg Marigny, Treme or the 7th Ward are moving to neighboring parishes. This outmigration is old news in expensive cities like New York and Chicago, but those cities have reliable — and affordable — public transportation systems. In those cities and others, employers often subsidize workers with monthly transit passes. Even without that benefit, a pre-tax transit scheme in Chicago allows workers to save up to $1,000 a year on getting to work.
To take an RTA bus from Hollygrove to her old restaurant job in the Warehouse District, Amanda Soprano used to leave home an hour and a half b…
To get things back on track here, the RTA, city officials and private employers need to implement creative solutions. We're finally catching up to other cities with the RTA's new smartphone app, which allows people to buy tickets on their phones and track buses and streetcars in real time. Some new RTA board members are transit advocates rather than functionaries. The new chair of the City Council's committee on transportation, District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, wants to tackle systemic problems at the RTA. In Kat Stromquist's cover story on the RTA, Palmer is blunt, saying: "I don't think they've been responsive to communities."
Palmer should know. She represents Algiers Point, where riders often complain about limited bus service, as well as some of the most tourist-heavy parts of downtown, a daily destination for thousands of service industry workers. Those who have to drive to downtown jobs are squeezed on all sides these days. Higher public parking rates went into effect under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, while private lots in the CBD and Warehouse District are being gobbled up by new condominium and mixed-use developments.
Palmer's ideas include a complete redesign of the bus network. Houston did that in 2015 and saw a 6.8 percent increase in ridership in one year. Palmer also suggests more efficient bus routes to places with many employees and a park-and-ride center for workers headed downtown. A two-hour bus ride with transfers could be replaced by a commute to a central lot with buses ferrying employees the last mile or two — perhaps for free. Such a system could benefit everyone, including employers.
The RTA contract, currently held by the company Transdev, is up for bid next year. All bidders should present innovative ideas to improve New Orleans' transit system, and the RTA should establish firm deadlines to implement those ideas. Public transit needs to tip back toward better serving those who need it most.