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New Orleans bus rapid transit proposal delayed amid council member's traffic concerns

A mockup of Bus Rapid Transit in New Orleans
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A mockup of Bus Rapid Transit in New Orleans. Courtesy of RTA.

Plans for a faster bus line that could connect New Orleans East to the west bank were dealt an early blow on Tuesday, after a city council committee moved to delay a vote on the rapid transit proposal.

After gathering public input on the proposed Bus Rapid Transit plan last spring, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority put forth their preferred route for the new bus line in January. The 15-mile BRT route would begin at the intersection of Lake Forest and Read boulevards, near the New Orleans East Hospital, cross the Danziger Bridge on Chef Menteur Highway, shoot down Elysian Fields Avenue, then snake through the Central Business District and over the Crescent City Connection.

That route on a bus today takes 90 minutes, but the BRT line could cut the end-to-end travel time down to an hour, according to the RTA. That’s because BRT systems, which are active in cities across the country, generally use dedicated bus lanes and priority signals at traffic lights to help move buses through city traffic faster.

RTA representatives presented that route to the city council transportation committee on Tuesday, seeking council members’ sign off on it before applying for federal funding to actually execute the plan. They made clear that they were only looking for the council to green light the general route, but not the specifics, like what bus lanes might look on a street-to-street basis.

“What you’re voting on essentially is the ‘where,’ not the ‘how,’” said Lona Edwards Hankins, interim CEO for the RTA.

But council member Freddie King took issue with the possibility that a travel lane on the Crescent City Connection might become a dedicated bus lane, saying his constituents in Algiers have expressed fear at recent public meetings that the move could increase congestion.

“The consensus was it’s not wanted on the west bank,” King said.

Hankins said the RTA can alter the language of the resolution put before the council to clarify that no decisions have yet been made as to how lanes on the Crescent City Connection will be treated. But making major changes to the proposed route – like cutting out the west bank portion – would be premature, she said, until the RTA conducts its full, detailed analysis into what the BRT system would look like.

“It would be a potential lost opportunity for the west bank, to move people quickly,” she said.

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's proposed route for a Bus Rapid Transit line connecting New Orleans East to the west bank via downtown. Courtesy of RTA.
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The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's proposed route for a Bus Rapid Transit line connecting New Orleans East to the west bank via downtown. Courtesy of RTA.

The RTA envisions the BRT project as a way to both better serve existing transit riders and entice new ones.

New Orleans residents who don’t have a car and rely on public transportation can only reach 7% of the metro area’s jobs in half an hour at midday, according to a 2022 analysisby local transit advocacy group RIDE New Orleans. But nearly all of the region’s jobs — 96% — are reachable within half an hour by car. RIDE also found that residents of New Orleans East, Algiers and the Lower 9th Ward face longer commute times than the average New Orleans resident.

For the nearly 3,000 RTA riders who take the bus from New Orleans East and the 2,000 who start their trips from the west bank each day, the BRT line could cut travel times to downtown in half, better linking those areas to jobs and health care centers, according to the transit authority.

The RTA wants BRT buses to come as frequently as every 15 minutes, 7 days a week. It also proposes spacing stops about a half-mile to a mile apart, so buses can pick up speed between stops, and having a pre-paid fare system so boarding can go faster. Stops would also have raised platforms, so passengers with mobility needs can get on and off more quickly.

Those measures could help make trip times comparable to driving a private car, according to the RTA. That could potentially attract more drivers to take transit – one of New Orleans’ goals to combat climate change and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Better transit options can also reduce traffic, said Hankins, the RTA CEO. “I can put 40 people on a bus as opposed to 10 individual cars – so it is a congestion relief measure that is used across our country.”

When asked about the potential for the BRT line to lessen traffic congestion, council member King said that he would be curious to see the numbers on current transit ridership for the west bank “to warrant taking away a lane” over the bridge.

King’s concerns around BRT echo another measure he pushed forward last fall. After a set of Algiers residents came out in vocal opposition to new protected bike lanes in the area, saying they snarled traffic and took away street parking, King championed an ordinance to remove them.

Few of those residents came to Tuesday’s BRT meeting, though. Public comment was overwhelmingly supportive, with many of the residents at the meeting applauding the RTA for seeking to provide better transit access for people in often underserved neighborhoods.

“A lot of the people that we serve – many of whom are your most vulnerable constituents – are saying that this needs to happen,” said Courtney Jackson, executive director of RIDE.

The RTA needs the council’s approval on the BRT route before submitting a letter of intent to the Federal Transit Administration, which the RTA hopes will fund half of the $250 million to $300 million project.

King moved to defer voting on the resolution until early March, and asked the RTA to bring alternatives to the table then.

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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