Keeping Transit on Pace With a Changing New Orleans
The city's Regional Transit Authority has ambitious plans to improve service for some of the city’s most disadvantaged communities. The agency’s new CEO says it’s mostly about the basics.
Later this summer, nearly 200 years after ferries started carrying daily passengers between the French Quarter and Algiers Point, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) will cut the ribbon on a new Canal Street Ferry Terminal building. The project will mark a major accessibility upgrade for the ferry system, which stopped carrying cars a few years ago and now runs every half-hour from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on weekdays. Paid for with a mix of federal, state and local funding, the $38 million renovation is designed to better integrate the ferry with the rest of the waterfront, the nearby aquarium and the streetcar network.
Like the streetcar, the ferry pulls double duty. It’s both a nostalgic link to a storied past and critical infrastructure for a working city, its riders “a combination of transit-dependent workers and tourists — pleasure-seekers, for lack of a better term,” says Lona Edwards Hankins, the CEO of RTA. New Orleans, where tourism and hospitality are leading industries, is used to that mix, if not exactly comfortable with it. The tourism industry has endured a series of shocks going back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And in the years since, many of the city’s core downtown neighborhoods have been repopulated, gentrified and in some cases overrun with short-term rentals like Airbnb.
Over the last few years, RTA has sought to make a number of improvements. An overhaul of the bus network implemented last year was designed to bring frequent transit service within a half-mile of a much greater portion of the city’s residents and jobs. The agency has made improvements to its fare payment system, and is still working to provide reliable real-time information through its mobile app.
As important as any of that, says Hankins, who took over the role of CEO just this past March, is steadily improving the reliability of bus service for the existing riders who depend on it.
“I feel like a football coach,” Hankins says. “We focus on the fundamentals and we do everything well in training camp so that on game day, we can shine.”
Many Modes, Diminished Service
New Orleans’ streetcar system is a unique local amenity, showing up throughout the cultural iconography of the city even as it continues to carry thousands of riders a day. The St. Charles Streetcar, which runs uptown from the French Quarter, has been operating continuously for almost two centuries and is a designated National Historic Landmark. But it’s slow, rarely breaking more than single-digit miles per hour. And it’s hardly usable for people with disabilities, with just a small fraction of ADA-accessible vehicles and stops.
“Affordable housing is all on the outskirts,” says Hankins. “We’re trying to solve for that.”
New Orleans today has about 79 percent of its pre-Katrina population, according to The Data Center. The population grew by about 40,000 people between 2010 and 2020, but the demographics of incoming residents looked quite different from the existing city. New Orleans gained 16,000 white people but only 1,000 Black people in those 10 years; the white share of the population grew overall while the Black share shrank. The Hispanic population also grew rapidly, from around 18,000 in 2010 to more than 31,000 in 2020. But New Orleans is still a majority-Black city, and the poverty rate for Black people in New Orleans is nearly three times higher than for white people, according to The Data Center.
After completing a strategic mobility plan in 2017, the New Orleans RTA redesigned its bus network in 2021. The new network was meant to improve transit access for Black communities and other communities of color, as part of a strategy for improving mobility for disadvantaged communities. There’s clear evidence that access to transit generally is linked with economic opportunities for low-income people, and recent research suggests that when low-income households move within a region, their transit access tends to get worse. The network overhaul, called “New Links,” was built to “double the share of households of color, low-income households and zero-car households within a 10-minute walk of transit that comes every 20 minutes or less, and double the percentage of jobs within a 10-minute walk of frequent transit,” according to the TransitCenter.
RIDE New Orleans, the advocacy group, supported and helped design the New Links project. It was a substantial shift in the system, with changes to most bus routes. Some lines were eliminated, others shifted around. Like a lot of network redesigns, it relies on people making connections and transfers in some new places. When it was implemented, last fall, some riders complained about the changes. Jackson says some of that confusion was inevitable with a once-in-a-generation redesign, but much of it was also because of poor communication on RTA’s part, part of a larger pattern with the agency. Affected communities needed months of engagement around the New Links plan, and only got weeks instead, she says.
“We were behind it 100 percent, but you’re asking people to learn a brand-new system and learn about tradeoffs and connections,” Jackson says. “Paper to pavement, it was a bit of a show.”
New Leadership and BRT Plans
Before Hankins took over as CEO of RTA in March, she’d worked in infrastructure planning for the agency and capital planning for the Recovery School District, following engineering and management jobs in the oil industry. She frames her work in transit as part of a broader mission to improve the city. “Committed to use all my superpowers and privilege to create a better place and space for current and future children of New Orleans,” says her LinkedIn page. She says she wants the agency to get better at communicating with its riders. Transit advocates like Jackson say they’re proud that a Black woman is running the agency, and optimistic that she can improve the agency’s relationship with its riders.
“She’s had some hard jobs, but she gets shit done,” Jackson says. “I’m hopeful that she comes out on top.”
While Hankins says she wants to focus on the fundamentals of running service and operating the agency, a nascent plan to build a bus rapid transit line will be a significant test. The preliminary route, which was approved by the City Council in March, would connect New Orleans East and the West Bank, two clusters of outlying neighborhoods, via the downtown job centers. Currently, bus service to the neighborhoods in New Orleans East crawls along with the rest of the vehicular traffic, idling at long red lights and stopping frequently at stops with no shelters or lighting. Reliability can be a challenge.
“Nobody wants to stand at a bus stop for 20 or 30 minutes and play the guessing game of when is my bus gonna come?” says Mark Raymond Jr., chair of the RTA’s board of commissioners.
The proposed 15-mile route would have fewer stops than traditional bus service, but, if it works correctly, more frequent and faster service with priority on the roadways. Some 22,000 people live within a quarter-mile of the proposed stops, according to the agency. More than three-quarters of them are people of color and 30 percent live in poverty. Helping people in poverty reach areas of opportunity was the original intent of the plan, Hankins says.
“I personally see transit sitting at the table and being a partner in solving many of the ills that New Orleans has,” she says.
There are crucial questions to answer about how the BRT line would work. Bus rapid transit in general has become something of a choose-your-own-adventure game for transit agencies, with a range of strategies, from station upgrades to exclusive transit lanes, falling under the same heading. While the City Council has signed off on the potential route, none of the specific decisions about how streets will be designed and maintained have been made yet. Conflicts are bound to arise over specific areas. And the agency “really hasn’t been forthcoming about what they envision” so far, says Roesel, of the regional planning commission.
Hankins says the RTA is working on a design study and financing strategy through the rest of the year. The project is expected to cost as much as $300 million, with much of the funding coming from federal sources with rigorous grant-making requirements and local matching funds. As important as capital funding: building buy-in from partner agencies that control the streets to make sure the service can work as intended long term. Hankins says she’s taking a group of transit riders, local officials and business leaders on a trip to see different BRT systems in the U.S. later this year, hoping to show that the service works best when it’s implemented most rigorously. Ideally those folks will “come back and demand excellence” in RTA’s bus rapid transit proposal.
“There’s this beautiful opportunity to serve these transit riders that need it so desperately,” Jackson says. “BRT has got a lot of weight on its shoulders, because if they do this right, it’s going to be beautiful.”