The Catch-22 of New Orleans Transit

Since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, public transit in New Orleans has struggled to rebound. With few riders, service expansions can't be justified. But with diminished service, fewer view transit as a viable option.
October 5, 2008, 7am PDT | Nate Berg
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"One of the difficult truths America learned when Katrina's floodwaters receded is that a sizable chunk of the city's population--one in four according to the 2000 census--lacks access to cars, filling the worn plastic seats of buses and streetcars instead. Even before post-Katrina revelations, however, it was no secret that the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) lacked the resources to transport its riders reliably, many of whom worked in the hotels, restaurants, and hospitals at one end of the city's sprawling 350-square-mile footprint and lived at the other. Riders would be held captive in the thick hot heat of summers, waiting hours at a time for a single transfer. On rainy days, entrepreneurial peddlers worked the crowds of soggy commuters at the uncovered bus stops, selling umbrellas held together with electric tape.

The storm and the resulting exodus only exacerbated the RTA's woes. After flooding destroyed 200 buses and miles of streetcar track, the RTA had to deploy aging commuter castoffs from other cities. The city's historic, olive-green streetcars became no more than a symbol used by the city's tourist board. Riders who could afford to buy or borrow cars began to do so. Others took up biking or walking. Many did not return.

Three years after Katrina, the 124,000 daily riders who fed the system the coins it needs to keep running have dropped by 75 percent, to 31,000 daily riders. The RTA now finds itself caught in a chicken-or-egg conundrum, funded by a combination of farebox returns, local tax revenue, and federal grants tied to a large ridership. Until more people return home to New Orleans, the city can't improve the transit routes to get them there."

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Published on Wednesday, October 1, 2008 in Next American City
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