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.

Tammany groups back, oppose tax renewals 

St. Tammany Parish officials have picked up two key endorsements for extending a pair of sales taxes that pay for operations of the parish courthouse and jail, with the board of directors of the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce and the St. Tammany Republican Parish Executive Committee backing the measures.

But the two 1/5th-cent taxes are also drawing opposition — from an old source, Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, and a new one, the St. Tammany Democratic Executive Committee. It's a reversal of a more typical situation in which Democrats support and Republicans oppose a tax measure.

In a prepared statement, the chamber said the taxes are needed to continue the current level of services and for public safety.

The GOP committee voted Thursday to support the two taxes after hearing presentations from Sheriff Randy Smith and other officials about the need for the revenue provided by the taxes.

They also heard from Concerned Citizens, which also opposed the taxes a year ago when the agencies were seeking 20-year renewals of quarter-cent taxes instead of 10-year renewals at a reduced rate. The voters rejected those renewals.

"The purpose of government at all levels is to provide essential services," Republican Executive Committee Chairman Larry Frieman said in a statement. "These taxes provide funding for public services that are, in fact, essential. Although we usually oppose or take no position on tax propositions, we believe these are vital to public safety, and we encourage voters to renew these reduced sales tax propositions."

Parish Democrats reached the opposite conclusion, saying that sales taxes hit poor people hardest and the parish has high sales tax rates and low property taxes.

"For a parish dominated by the party of ‘small government and low taxes,’ our parish elected officials ram through burdensome taxes to support a bloated bureaucracy,” Ann Porter, the executive committee's chairwoman, said.

But she also said the decision was a difficult one because the taxes help support specialty courts that provide alternatives to incarceration.

Concerned Citizens, which actively opposed the taxes last year, has not been swayed by the decrease in the amount, from a quarter-cent to a fifth, or the cut in duration from 20 years to 10. The group maintains that St. Tammany's tax rate is among the highest in the state and that other sources of income or spending reductions should be considered first.

The citizens group also chided Smith, with whom they have had a rocky relationship in recent months, saying he hasn't kept campaign promises to eliminate waste and complete a forensic audit before pursuing revenue measures.

"Frankly, he was trying to find ways to raise taxes even before he took office," the group said.

Bus riders tell RTA where to get off

Activist Gavrielle Gemma had a bone to pick with the board of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority last week, and she wasn’t going to wait until the agency’s board granted her a microphone to pick it.

Gemma and a small group of protesters arrived at the board's meeting to voice the often-heard complaint that the RTA needs to offer better bus service in New Orleans East, Algiers and elsewhere to accommodate working residents.

“Excuse me, commissioners, but as you well know there are a group of hotel workers and restaurant workers that came here to address this board … and people have to go to their lunch shift,” Gemma said, interrupting an unrelated presentation.

“Ma’am, we have you (listed) on 'public comment,' ” RTA Chairwoman Sharonda Williams said. “I’m going to ask you to maintain order.”

Gemma continued on, loudly interrupting Williams again and again until she and the handful of people she had come with were forcibly ejected from the boardroom.

The heated exchange showcased the criticism the RTA has weathered in some quarters for ramping up streetcar service since Hurricane Katrina, opening the Loyola Avenue and North Rampart-St. Claude lines — moves that some say show the agency is more concerned with impressing tourists than serving residents who rely chiefly on buses.

Advocacy groups such as RIDE New Orleans have called upon the agency to restore bus service citywide to its pre-Katrina level, saying that the average public transit rider can get to only 11 percent of the region’s jobs within a half-hour.

Justin Augustine III, the RTA general manager and vice president of Transdev, the private firm that runs the agency's daily operations, said the RTA has invested heavily in the East in recent years, despite limited resources.

“We’ve spent approximately $13 million in new service, and the bulk of that new service has gone to East New Orleans,” he said.

That wasn’t enough to satisfy Gemma and her colleagues, who were later let back into the room and who said they struggle to get to their jobs on time when relying on RTA buses.

“A lot of times, I will get off the bus and walk 45 minutes instead of waiting three hours in New Orleans East after 2 o’clock in the morning,” said Peter Barrett, a restaurant worker who lives in the East. Others said they fear being targeted by criminals as they wait for buses late at night.

The agency is trying to get more federal money so that it can expand local bus service, Augustine said later.

“We know the demographics of the city is changing and that we need more equipment out there, but we need more money to buy more equipment to pay for more service,” he said.

With the Trump administration seeking to cut many areas of domestic spending, chances of getting more money are questionable, even though the president has proposed spending heavily on infrastructure.

The Times' man in town is leaving

Campbell Robertson, who has been covering New Orleans and the Deep South for The New York Times for about eight years, will be moving on soon to another assignment.

From his base in New Orleans, Robertson has chronicled the region’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill and has provided a national readership with stories about other issues in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.

It’s not unusual for national correspondents to move on to new assignments every few years, and Robertson said his tenure in New Orleans may be the longest of anyone in a similar position.

“I think the story of New Orleans, the longer you’re here the deeper it gets and the more fascinating it gets. Obviously, it’s a lot different than it was when I got here in 2009,” said Robertson, an Alabama native.

He said his new assignment is still being finalized but he expects it to begin this summer.

His departure is bound to raise questions about the future of The Times’ coverage of New Orleans. Having a reporter based here during its recovery has provided readers across the country with an up-close look at the city and state and the issues they face.

Marc Lacey, The Times’ national editor, said the paper is still working on its plans. "We have a serious commitment to covering New Orleans and the South, and ... we intend to announce some plans to deepen our coverage soon," Lacey said in an email.

Keeping a reporter in New Orleans may no longer have the urgency it did a few years ago. On the other hand, the Times' top editor, Dean Baquet, is from New Orleans and is well aware of the challenges facing both the city and its journalism community.

Compiled by Sara Pagones, Jessica Williams and Jeff Adelson

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.