After a yearlong, $1 million planning process, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority on Tuesday unveiled a multiyear plan for improving public transportation in the city — a document that spells out not only lofty, long-term goals but also some changes that can be achieved quickly and at little cost.
At its core, the 12-page document seeks to accomplish the bread-and-butter objective of any transit system: getting riders to and from their destinations reliably and within a reasonable amount of time.
It also seeks to make the “regional” in the RTA’s name a reality instead of an aspiration, outlining goals for improving interparish connections.
And it reflects citizens’ calls in recent years for the agency to be more transparent about its inner workings and more equitable in its services.
Scores of riders and other residents contributed their thoughts at numerous public meetings and through online surveys over the past year about how the authority could improve.
“I really do believe that this is a model around how to engage the public — our public — in transit design,” said Ashleigh Gardere, a member of the RTA's governing board and a senior adviser to Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“So I just want to repeat back to the community and the people who participated in this process: We heard what you said to us.”
The document, a response to public transit advocates’ clamor for a clear vision for the agency, comes three years after the RTA’s private manager, Transdev, unleashed a pie-in-the-sky, $3.5 billion master plan that called for expanding the agency’s streetcar lines and building bus service back toward the level available before Hurricane Katrina.
That proposal — wishful thinking at best, Transdev officials conceded — was quietly shelved.
The latest vision was launched after the RTA paid a San Francisco-based consulting firm, Nelson\Nygaard, up to $1 million to get community input over the past year.
That firm, which has guided similar plans in other cities, has helped create a potentially $230 million plan that focuses on meeting riders’ demands — from the simplest to the most complicated.
To increase transparency, for example, it calls for the RTA to hold its board meetings in the evenings, not mornings, and to publish video of its meetings online — two relatively low-cost steps that the agency said will be done within two years.
But the RTA also plans within the next five years to consider creating more frequent regional connections between Orleans and Jefferson parishes, including the revival of a pass that would end the practice of forcing riders to pay a separate fare to transfer to a bus in the neighboring parish.
It will also consider creating routes from St. Tammany and St. Bernard parishes to the Central Business District, and from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Those heavy-lift steps will require interparish cooperation and money, officials said.
Separately, the agency will by 2020 gauge the costs of a wholesale transit redesign that could entail placing new routes next to major development projects — in keeping with so-called “transit-oriented development” — or offering new routes where most riders demand them, instead of basically keeping the same routes year after year and expecting riders to adjust to them.
That step is critical and should be completed by next year if possible, said Alex Posorske of RIDE New Orleans, a group that has long urged RTA to craft a master plan.
“We will not know what this whole thing is going to cost and really what the feasibility is until we take a look at that,” he said.
Notably, the plan pledges that the RTA will work with city officials on creating affordable housing and crucial services in areas where bus and streetcar service already is most available, rather than trying to scrounge up funds to put more bus routes in far-flung city areas where housing is now cheaper, such as New Orleans East.
And when it comes to meeting the overarching goal of getting riders to their destinations quickly, the RTA issued itself a tougher edict after listening to riders over the last year, said Transdev Chief Strategy Officer Adelee LeGrand.
Rather than transporting 43 percent of residents to area jobs within an hour by 2027 — the goal the agency initially set for itself — the RTA now intends to move 60 percent of the general population and 65 percent of low-income residents to jobs within that time frame, she said.
The agency will begin implementing the plan’s more immediate steps next year. Others will be completed over the next five, 10 or 20 years, depending on the availability of funding.