The LA Swift bus — which transported 200 people daily between New Orleans and Baton Rouge — reached the end of the road July 31. The bus initially served as a means for New Orleans residents who relocated to Baton Rouge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to make affordable trips to their homes and jobs, but the service has continued in recent years as a reliable, low-cost transit option between the two cities. For a $10 round-trip ticket, riders took the bus to six cities in south Louisiana. It served more than 12,000 riders each month.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funded the program with an annual $2.3 million grant, which relied on a $750,000 local match provided by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). In June, DOTD announced it no longer would subsidize the match. Truth is, Gov. Bobby Jindal refused to include it in his budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Sadly, LA Swift is not the only critical means of transportation that has been adversely affected by state budget cuts.
As LA Swift's demise loomed last week, the Algiers ferry abruptly stopped service July 30. The Chalmette ferry had a mechanical problem, and the Algiers ferry was pressed into service in its stead. The Algiers ferry, which is a crucial link between downtown and Algiers Point, didn't return to regular service until the following afternoon. The ferry already is in dire straits, as DOTD decreased nighttime service hours from midnight to 6:15 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on weekends.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans City Council this week will consider a proposed fare schedule put forth by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to keep the Algiers ferry operating at something resembling "normal" service. State lawmakers this year passed a measure by state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers, to authorize DOTD to contract with the RTA to continue ferry operations. In last week's commentary ("What's fare?"), we challenged council members and the RTA to consider a "fair" fare. West Bank residents who work in the downtown hospitality industry are often stuck without a ride to or from work. Algiers businesses — including shops, restaurants, bars and bed and breakfasts — suffer if tourists can't get a ride to them. We're glad to see the council and the RTA respond to the challenge.
Now we call on state and other local officials to change their perspectives on public transportation. It's time to treat public transit like a vital organ to the entire region instead of an expensive nuisance. Transit lines are lifelines for many low- and moderate-income people in south Louisiana. Although LA Swift was launched as a temporary solution post-Katrina, it now serves thousands of people who have come to rely on it. And because workers rely on public transportation, the businesses that employ those workers likewise need it.
In a June survey of LA Swift's ridership, more than half of respondents said they depend on the bus for work. Thirty-five percent of riders use it daily, while another 35 percent use it at least once a month. Nearly one-third of riders don't have any other means of transportation. A May report on ferry usage, conducted by the transit advocacy organization Ride New Orleans, found that more than half of respondents use the Algiers ferry daily to commute to work, and 20 percent have no other transportation. The same surveys found that 11 percent of LA Swift riders work in the hospitality industry, as do 46 percent of Algiers ferry riders.
The state's reluctance to make public transit a priority puts those jobs at risk. For some reason, there's a disconnect between the economic importance of public transit and the state's policy and funding decisions. That must change, starting with a holistic approach that recognizes all transit components as vital pieces of an interconnected system.
The RTA aggressively expanded streetcar services that will link the Marigny with Uptown. The U.S. Department of Transportation backed the Loyola Avenue streetcar line with a $45 million grant, and another grant added $400,000 more for workforce development. The Loyola Avenue streetcar links downtown businesses and hotels along a commercial corridor, while the historic St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street lines are promoted heavily to tourists. These lines face little danger of losing their funding, yet the ferry and LA Swift, on which local workers rely, get short shrift.
Hundreds of cities around the world have reliable, efficient public transit systems. New Orleans should be among them.