The LA Swift bus service that transports commuters between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is one of the silver linings that followed Hurricane Katrina. Now it's threatened with extinction. Local officials in both cities are trying to help the transit service avoid that fate. I hope they succeed.
As horrific as Katrina was for south Louisiana, the storm also forged lasting bonds between communities that came to the aid of coastal parishes and those which were devastated. Baton Rouge responded on many levels, welcoming displaced New Orleanians who sought places to live within driving distance to the metro area.
Many of us still recall with dread the hourslong daily traffic jams on I-10 between New Orleans and the Capital City. To ease the congestion, the state established a park-and-ride commuter bus service between the two cities in October 2005. LA Swift became an instant hit. Even now, almost eight years after the storm, the service (which contracts with Hotard Coaches to provide buses) still provides more than 10,000 rides a month — and ridership is steadily growing.
Granted, the service originally was created as a temporary measure to help displaced New Orleanians get to work after the storm, but it has grown into a vital link between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Riders use it in both directions, so much so that civic and political leaders in both cities are rallying to keep LA Swift going. The service attracts some 200 riders a day.
LA Swift began via a Federal Transit Administration recovery grant, along with a $5 charge for each one-way trip. The grant is still available, but since 2007 it has required a local match, which the state has provided. The state will not provide that match going forward, however, and the service was set to end June 30. State officials last week gave LA Swift a one-month reprieve, providing local officials a chance to raise the local match, which is more than $700,000.
State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, is among those working to cobble together the match. The good news, Leger says, is that the feds will allow Louisiana to use in-kind donations as well as cash to match the $1.6 million in federal dollars needed to keep LA Swift operating at its current level. Leger adds that he has received assurances from Gov. Bobby Jindal that if the local match can be raised without the need for state support, the governor will support continuation of LA Swift via available federal money.
"LA Swift is important for several reasons," Leger says. "Fifty-one percent of its ridership depends on the service to get to and from work. Another 14 percent rely on it to access health care, and daily commutes between New Orleans and Baton Rouge — in both directions — are increasing steadily. Keeping LA Swift will promote the economic health and growth of the super-region and the state."
Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden agrees. He recently told radio host Jim Engster, "When we are now taking people who were maybe displaced from New Orleans and are now [living permanently in Baton Rouge], and giving them reasonable transportation at a reasonable cost to New Orleans in order to do jobs — and even people from Baton Rouge who are going to New Orleans — it's going to have an economic effect."
In addition to the statistics cited by Leger, a recent survey of LA Swift riders showed that 44 percent ride to visit family and friends and 32 percent do not have a car. Seventy percent of LA Swift riders use the service either daily or weekly, according to the survey. A majority said they are willing to pay more for the service, but increased fares cannot be used for the local match. Fares can be used to offset operating costs, however.
Throughout history, transportation has tied civilizations and communities together. It would be a shame to lose such an important — and viable — link between two of Louisiana's leading cities.