Popular transit: RTA lines see boost after April's service expansion _lowres

Advocate file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A rider steps on to an RTA bus at Canal Boulevard by Greenwood Cemetery Monday, August 17, 2015.

Bus riders heading from Orleans Parish to Ochsner Medical Center on Jefferson Highway will have an easier commute starting next month, several months earlier than expected.

The board of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority voted Tuesday to extend its Tulane Avenue line, No. 39, to Jefferson Highway and Causeway Boulevard in Jefferson Parish.

That line now stops at Mistletoe Street and South Claiborne Avenue, just inside the Orleans-Jefferson Parish line.

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The agency told the City Council earlier this month that it would extend one of its lines out along Jefferson Highway by 2019. But because the RTA has had $4.6 million more in revenue this year than it anticipated, it had the money to move more quickly, RTA Interim Executive Director Jared Munster said.

Though the agency had discussed extending the South Claiborne line, No. 16, past its end point of South Claiborne and South Carrollton avenues, it decided instead to extend the Tulane line, as that line has more riders than the Claiborne and runs more often.

However, both bus lines will run on 24-hour schedules as part of the change, officials said.

Jefferson Transit's E-3 Kenner Local line begins at the South Claiborne/South Carrollton intersection and runs past Ochsner, but RTA riders heading to Ochsner have been forced to transfer to the Jefferson bus and pay a separate $1.50 fare.

“There have been a lot of folks ... who have really wanted to make this organization an actual regional organization,” RTA Chairman Flozell Daniels said.

“This is just another example of how we are going to be committed and steadfast in responding to the riding public’s need to get across this region to access jobs, health care and opportunity.”

The September launch of the extended line will coincide with the introduction of a $6 regional day pass that riders crossing parish lines can use on routes in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes — another baby step toward true regionalism.

That concept has eluded the RTA since it was created in 1979. The Legislature made each area parish's participation in the agency optional, and periodic attempts at greater regional cooperation have died amid interparish spats.

At least one official is no fan of the latest effort. Jefferson Transit Director Sharon Leader said RTA officials should have run their plans past her sooner because any extensions of Orleans lines into Jefferson could affect her system’s revenue.

She also said that such ad hoc moves don’t consider the two systems’ needs holistically. “I think it was done in a unilateral, noncollaborative way,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

But RTA board member Al Herrera, one of three members appointed by Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni, said Tuesday that Yenni, the Jefferson Parish Council, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the New Orleans City Council all support the effort.

“It‘s the RTA’s commitment to work along with Jefferson Parish Transit to continue the goals that have been set forth by both President Yenni and the Jefferson Parish Council,” Herrera said.

Eleven business organizations across the New Orleans area endorsed the moves toward regional transit in a letter this week to Cantrell, Yenni and RTA members.

The Ochsner extension will be realized earlier than expected because the RTA has taken in more money and spent less than it forecast this year. The agency gets most of its revenue from sales taxes, with passenger fares the second-largest source.

Both sales taxes and fares saw an uptick this summer, as people flocked to town for the Essence Festival and other events, said Ronald Baptiste, the finance chief for Transdev, the private firm that manages the RTA’s operations.

After satisfying its other obligations, the RTA was left with $14.7 million for the year as of July, or $4.6 million more than the $10.1 million it had projected, he said.

That money will fund the Tulane line extension and allow both it and the South Claiborne line to run 24 hours a day.

At present, the only 24-hour route in that area is the St. Charles streetcar line, and the RTA has long recognized the need for more such routes, Munster said.

Alex Posorske, head of the transit advocacy organization RIDE New Orleans, called Tuesday "a day we should all celebrate."

"This is a great example of how the region can come together, do what's right and make things a little easier for folks that really need it," he said. 

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.