NEW ORLEANS — Every morning, Judy Stevens leaves her house in the eastern reaches of this city and spends more than two hours, taking three buses across two transit systems, to get to her job west of the city. She heads out at 5:30, painfully early, but she needs all that time. She worries especially about the tight connection between her first bus and her second bus. If her regular driver isn’t on duty, she says, everything goes haywire. “We’re like, he needs to let us know when he’s going on vacation,” she says.
Stevens knows it would be much faster to drive, but she finds the cost and inconvenience of maintaining and insuring a car “unacceptable.” Plus, she likes the passengers on the ride home: She’ll “amen” along with Sister Sonja, who’s always thanking Jesus, and laugh at the jokes from the guy who “thinks he’s a comedian” after a few too many beers.
Her supervisor pushed her start time back 15 minutes when she realized what Judy’s commute was like, but she still usually arrives early enough to sit and eat breakfast with her co-workers before she starts her day. It’s buffer time in case the bus gets stuck at a rail crossing, or she misses her connection, or the replacement driver screws up the timing.
In cities like New Orleans, public transportation provides a crucial link between people and their jobs. But in many ways, it’s failing exactly the people who need it most: the people in poorer neighborhoods, those without cars, and those who rely on transit for their geographic and social mobility. Though affordable housing gets more attention in the national debate about economic opportunity, affordable transportation is just as essential: Where transit is infrequent and unreliable, it dramatically shrinks the pool of jobs available to people who don’t have a car.
New Orleans, unique as it is, is also unique as an illustration of what can go wrong with public transit funding. It was already facing serious issues before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005 and wiped out its transportation network. More than half of the city’s 382 buses were lost in the flooding. For the entire next year, the transit system didn’t charge fares, since so many residents couldn’t pay. The Federal Emergency Management Agency made up the balance.
If the devastation had a silver lining, it was that it gave the city a do-over—a chance to start from scratch, using federal disaster relief funding and other transit incentives to rebuild its system for the modern era, connecting its residents to the opportunities they need.
But a POLITICO review of the results shows that’s not what happened. Instead, over the following decade, New Orleans became an object lesson in how federal efforts to improve transportation all too often either run aground or go off the rails. Money is subject to urban-planning fads and the changing winds of each administration’s ideological preferences. Federal transit funding programs are finicky, paying for capital investments but leaving cities on the hook for operations. And there’s a gap in thinking at the policy level: With no requirement that systems actually connect workers to jobs, cities will often invest in high-profile systems for tourists and affluent residents, while outlying areas remain disconnected.
Now, 13 years after Katrina, New Orleans is trying to pivot again. The transit authority has pledged a new approach, giving priority to economic fairness in its planning decisions. The new mayor, who just took office in May, is putting the power of her office behind the idea of transit equity, establishing a new Office of Transportation dedicated to giving residents better access to jobs. But can the city make up for so much lost time?
LESS THAN A century ago, New Orleans was a paragon of urban transit, with more than 200 miles of streetcar tracks crisscrossing the city. The world-famous St. Charles streetcar has been in continuous operation since 1835. The post-World War II automobile boom saw the rest of the city’s streetcars sacrificed and replaced by buses; today, the St. Charles line is the only part of that network still running.
New Orleans transit has some distinct features, like its surviving streetcars and a ferry that crosses the Mississippi River into the Algiers neighborhood. But like many cities, its system has long been fragmented, with fault lines that often follow class and race. The Regional Transit Authority, established in 1979, was set up to include both New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, or counties—but left the decision to participate up to the parishes themselves. The surrounding parishes, mostly whiter and better-off, opted out; only Orleans parish, which houses the majority-black city, opted in.
Today, New Orleans is increasingly an economically divided city, with a core of wealthy “haves,” who own cars and live near the city’s four trolley lines, and a spread-out periphery of poorer people, like Judy Stevens, who live farther away and rely on the sparse bus network. About 1 in 5 New Orleanians lack access to a reliable vehicle—twice the national average. For them, nearly 90 percent of the region’s jobs are off-limits. And because of the parishes opting out of the RTA, the bus system makes riders coming in or out of the city transfer to not only another bus but an entirely different bus network, paying a second fare—one of the reasons why Stevens’ commute is so onerous.
If all this presents New Orleans with an intimidating array of urban challenges, Hurricane Katrina brought a new one that was horrifyingly singular. The eye of the storm never passed through the city, but as its punishing winds and rains barreled into New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, the levees protecting its low-lying districts were breached in more than 50 places, and water from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River filled the low-lying city like a bowl. More than 1,800 people died in the storm, the vast majority in Louisiana. It took weeks for the floodwaters to recede. The scale of destruction was almost unimaginable. Poor people who lacked the resources to evacuate were put on city buses and transported to the Superdome, where violence, hunger and squalor awaited them.
Another cruel factor: the date. It was the end of the month, and people didn’t have the money to go anywhere else. “It’s when your check has basically run out,” notes Council member Kristin Palmer. “It explains why you had an exorbitant number of folks on a certain socioeconomic level that stayed.”
“We already had a very big population that was reliant on public transit and/or bicycles, and it was never really acknowledged,” Palmer said.
After the storm, the transportation system those people relied on went dormant for more than a month. When it started to limp back to life, city leaders surveyed a landscape of loss. Four of the RTA’s five facilities were destroyed. The bus depots housing nearly all of the city’s buses both flooded, one with 12 feet of water, the other up to seven feet. The streetcar facility was spared, but not the streetcars: Half of them were parked in one of the flooded depots.
“The bulk of your equipment destroyed. The bulk of your physical plant was destroyed,” says Justin Augustine, general manager of the RTA. “There was a loss of technical capacity because people were scattered all throughout the country. The population had been displaced in the city. The city’s infrastructure was messed up—the electrical grid, everything was screwed up.”
The state of Louisiana, already one of the poorest in the nation and dealing with hurricane effects far beyond New Orleans, would need heavy assistance from every available arm of the federal government to get through the disaster.
Enter Washington. New Orleans received $130 million in federal recovery funds after Katrina to rebuild the transit system. But this ended up being nowhere near enough. When it came to buses, for instance, FEMA’s formula was to replace the dollar value of the buses lost, not the actual number of buses. The city’s buses were aging, and their value had depreciated; the $44 million it got from FEMA replaced only 75 of the 202 buses that were lost.
The bus shortfall was just one of the challenges FEMA posed for the city. The agency “was very difficult to work with because they were based upon the reimbursement [model],” Augustine said. It would pay the city back for expenditures—but the city had no money to spend. “If you don’t have any money coming in,” he said, “it’s kind of hard to say, ‘you have to pay for whatever upfront.’”
Augustine said FEMA also had a “revolving door” of staff going in and out. “Every six months you had a different team to work with,” he said. “And just when you thought you’ve got the first team understanding the plight, they would be shipped out and a new team would come in.”
There were other sources of federal funding, however. A few years later, the city applied for grants from the federal Department of Transportation’s TIGER grant program, which started under the 2009 federal stimulus and was a big focus of President Barack Obama’s DOT. TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) gave cities money for projects that sometimes have trouble getting attention at the state and federal level—bike lanes and sidewalks, for example. And streetcars. Cities across the country were laying down new tracks under the assumption that rail transit attracted more economic development than buses.
New Orleans needed any money it could get. It got a $45 million TIGER grant from DOT smack in the middle of the streetcar craze. So it built a streetcar.
“It was the policy of RTA to aggressively seek available dollars from the federal government,” said RTA’s Augustine, looking back on the decision. “It’s not that streetcars were better than buses or buses were better than streetcars. It’s that the available money that came from the federal government was geared toward those types of programs.”
Today, New Orleans is living with the legacy of that decision. It needed the streetcar money and used it to build the new Loyola line. When the city went back to TIGER for more money to extend the line onto Rampart and St. Claude, it came up empty. So the city paid for the extension itself, with money advocates say would have been better used making the buses run more often and connect to more places.
By rule, federal transit programs don’t fund operations—they pay only for capital investments. TIGER could pay for tracks and vehicles, but the RTA then needed to find its own money to pay the drivers of all those new vehicles. That continues to this day; the money for that gets cobbled together between the city’s one-cent retail sales tax, a cut of the hotel tax, state dollars, interest from some RTA investments, and of course, transit fares.
NEW ORLEANS NOW is a smaller city than it was before Katrina. Thirteen years after the storm, only about 85 percent of the population has returned. Its transit system is even more diminished, running at half its previous strength. Before Katrina, there were 19 high-frequency bus and streetcar routes in the region. Now only five routes run often enough to be truly useful, which is usually defined as every 15 minutes or less.
Four years after Katrina, an outside firm, Transdev, was contracted to run the RTA; it helped pull the system back from the brink after the storm and today still operates the network using public funds. Around the time that Transdev took over the RTA, another group took shape: Ride New Orleans. It’s a riders’ alliance, organizing the people who rely on transit to get to work and go about their lives. Every year, Ride New Orleans publishes a big report on the state of transit in the city, with a focus on connecting people to jobs.
The report it published in 2018 showed some grim statistics for people who rely on transit. It found that by car, the average New Orleans resident can reach 89 percent of area jobs with a standard half-hour commute. By public transit, however, only 12 percent of the region’s jobs are accessible in that time.
Katrina aside, policy missteps have kept the transit system limping. Ride New Orleans points to the investment, funded partly by the TIGER grant and partly with local bonding, in a new streetcar line along Loyola Avenue, Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue arcing east from downtown. There, the streetcars ride in mixed traffic without a dedicated lane and no priority at traffic lights—and so, for all that money, they don’t go any faster than a bus.
The line primarily caters to tourists, Ride New Orleans found in its 2017 report. In fact, the new streetcar line actually made job access along the corridor slightly worse, since bus service along the corridor was reduced after the streetcar went in.
Meanwhile, a few simple and inexpensive improvements to bus service have made a significant difference in connecting people to jobs. As the streetcar went in, the RTA also extended the 15-Freret and 28-Martin Luther King bus lines by eight blocks, enough to connect them with the RTA’s main transfer hub. Ride New Orleans said the simple extension of those two lines meant there were about 5,500 more jobs in reach of residents on those corridors than before.
“Nationwide, we’ve been focused on a lot of bells and whistles: ’We need to lay down rail because that’s what choice riders want; we need to make sure we have Wi-Fi in all of our vehicles because that’s what choice riders want,’” said Ride New Orleans Executive Director Alex Posorske. (“Choice riders” are the passengers transit authorities strive to attract — people who have other options but who can be lured to choose transit, if the transit is appealing enough.)
“We haven’t been looking at what riders actually need,” Posorske went on. “What they actually need is a reliable ride to where they want to go. We need connectivity and we need frequency that means you’re not going to be standing there for 30 minutes wondering where the hell the bus is. It’s not complicated.”
NEW ORLEANS FACES deep challenges that would be there even if Katrina had never hit. While jobs haven’t sprawled out to the suburbs, people have—especially poor people who can’t afford the city’s ever-rising rents. And they need to commute into the city for jobs in the hospitality- and nightlife-heavy economy. That economy doesn’t follow the same rhythms of an office-driven workforce, but the transit system still does.
Shelia Culner, 58, lives right in the middle of the city, about a mile and a half from her job at a call center at Harrah’s Casino at the edge of the French Quarter. She commutes on the streetcar that Ride New Orleans—a group she’s part of—slams as window dressing for tourists. But it’s not a great commute. Even that short trip requires a transfer, and the connections are often bad.
“You might get off one trolley and then you’ll see the one that you want to go towards the river just pass you,” Culner said. “They’re not waiting.”
She leaves herself an hour and a half to make the commute by streetcar and bus. If she’s late to work, her bosses give her a point. At peak times, like Mardi Gras, when the city is even harder to navigate, it’s four points for being late.
Twelve points and she gets fired.
Shelia’s friend Tammy Martin, 48, works at the same call center, but she commutes in from Orleans East (where the sign outside the shuttered Six Flags still says “Closed for Storm”) and her schedule is more challenging. She leaves home at 3 p.m. to get to work on time at 5:45 and when she gets off work at 2:15 a.m., she often has to wait 45 minutes for the Owl bus, infrequent service that combines multiple bus lines late at night, for the nine-mile trek home.
“A lot of this economy is evening and even late night,” said RTA board member Fred Neal. “If you think about the hours that the service staff in a hotel needs to be able to work, it’s early morning to midafternoon. Then you think about entertainment, the restaurants and musicians and the clubs—those hours are mainly early afternoon to late evening; actually early morning.”
Then there’s another unique New Orleans problem: The parades, a proud local tradition that can snarl traffic for hours, disrupting transit service and just about everything else in their path.
“Some of us try to get out before the parade starts,” said Judy Stevens. “You can’t time that. I get off work when I get off work.”
“I used to brag about New Orleans transit,” said Culner. “I used to tell people, we have the best transit ever.”
NEW ORLEANS MAY not be able to get back to “best transit ever,” but its new mayor, LaToya Cantrell, has taken on transportation as a challenge, and trying to bring some new thinking aboard. In her first two months in office, she established a new Mayor's Office of Transportation and brought reform-minded advocates onto the transit advisory board. And, with Transdev’s contract up for renewal in 2019, the city is beginning to contemplate taking back control over the RTA, at least in part.
Laura Bryan, the mayor’s new director of transportation, says getting people to work is one of the mayor’s top priorities. “We need to be able to provide access to good jobs throughout the region,” Bryan said. “We see a real synergy between affordable housing and transit.”
“Providing connection to where we know [the cost of] housing is a little bit lower—providing more direct, faster connection—is really important to the mayor.”
RTA has now implemented a regional day pass, which for the first time allows riders to go between the RTA and the system in Jefferson Parish, home of Ochsner Medical Center, the region’s second-biggest employment center, where Stevens and about 6,600 other people work. (With a massive new expansion on the way, the center is becoming even more crucial to the local economy).
Even better, on Oct. 1, Stevens’ bus, the RTA 39-Tulane line, crossed parish lines for the first time with the support of the City Council, the mayor and some (though not all) key leaders in Jefferson Parish. Now that bus takes her all the way to work, saving Stevens one transfer, 15 minutes and $1.50, twice a day.
The RTA has also implemented real-time tracking, which riders can access on their app. Some older riders say they don’t use it—they still call the RTA hotline to ask a real human being when the bus or the streetcar is coming.
Most important, the RTA, working closely with Ride New Orleans, has released a new strategic plan that prioritizes job access and connecting low-income communities outside the city center with better service. It pledges to double the share of the region’s jobs available to the average resident within a one-hour commute. Social equity is a stated goal. Ride New Orleans calls the plan “a strong document that–if followed and implemented–will make a big difference for the riding public.”
There have been missteps even since the RTA adopted the plan last December. It considered spending up to $624,000 this year to study the possible extension of the streetcar line that so irks advocates. Ride New Orleans accused RTA of trying to do an “end run” around its own strategic plan and even its own board. The group has beaten back the study effort, for now.
Meanwhile, transit funding is drying up under the Trump administration, which has slowed the release of capital money for public transportation to a drip. New Orleans was awarded a federal grant for 17 new buses in September but had been rejected for several rounds of bus funding before that. Transit officials around the country are anxious that the federal dollars they all rely on will be harder to come by for the foreseeable future.
In New Orleans, though, advocates are feeling optimistic. Ride New Orleans says the new mayor’s actions, the new makeup of the RTA board and the new strategic plan set the stage for big improvements to come. “Building upon this progress over the next year,” they say, “will be the key challenge for RTA, New Orleans and the region.”
Still, on a late September day when the group’s director, Alex Posorske, left a meeting with volunteers for another meeting east of the city, he noted with an ironic smile that they’d gotten, not entirely unexpectedly, some extra time to chat: His bus to his next meeting was 28 minutes late.