Bus rapid transit route gets green light from New Orleans City Council
New Orleans City Council gave a preliminary green light to a new rapid transit line that would connect New Orleans East and the west bank to downtown on a single route.
The new line – called a Bus Rapid Transit project – would be the first of its kind in the New Orleans area. In cities across the country, BRT lines use dedicated bus lanes and priority signals at traffic lights to move buses through cities more quickly.
The council’s Thursday vote approves only the general route the line would take, not specifics like where stops will be and what bus lanes might look like on a street-to-street basis. With the council’s sign-off, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority can begin seeking federal funding to help pay for the $250 million to $300 million dollar project.
But securing the council’s approval wasn’t easy.
At a council transportation committee meeting in February, council member Freddie King took issue with the possibility that a travel lane on the Crescent City Connection bridge might become a dedicated bus lane, saying his constituents in Algiers have expressed fear at recent public meetings that the move could increase congestion. He moved to delay the council’s vote on the proposed route.
But King changed course on Thursday. That’s because the resolution the council approved has slightly updated language, clarifying that “no determination has been made” concerning the design of potential bus lanes. It also specifies that the RTA will continue engaging residents and local governments in both New Orleans and Jefferson Parish before it makes final decisions about the route.
“This has my full support,” King said. “Thank you for allowing this to open up further conversations for improvement.”
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 analysis by 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.
The BRT project is RTA’s answer to those lengthy commutes. In its BRT proposal to the council, the transit agency noted that most hospitality and service industry jobs are concentrated downtown, but housing prices near the city’s core have skyrocketed in recent years – pushing many residents to outlying neighborhoods in search of cheaper rent.
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, seven 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. The agency estimates that travel time on the 15-mile route could clock in at under an hour, start to finish.
That could potentially attract more drivers to take transit – one of New Orleans’ goals to combat climate change and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Courtney Jackson, executive director of RIDE, said the group is excited to see the BRT project move forward.
“What we saw in opposition was people’s fear around losing ways to move around the city. But the goal with this is making an equitable way for everyone to move around the city,” Jackson said. “We want cars to move. We want buses to move. We want bikes to move, and we want people to move. And we don’t want them to have to give up one for the other.”
With the council’s blessing, the RTA can now begin applying for funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grants program, which saw an influx of funding from the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The agency hopes the federal program can cover half the cost of the project.
“This will help us work toward fulfilling our commitment to fast, reliable, world-class transit service for the Greater New Orleans Region,” said RTA CEO Lona Edwards Hankins. “Embracing this approach is a major step toward incorporating some of the nation’s best practices into our transit system in a way that serves all our residents’ needs.”
In the coming months, the RTA plans to hire an engineering team to begin gathering more data as it hashes out a design. If the agency is successful in securing federal funds this year, it estimates that buses could be on the road in 2027.