New Orleans: nine years after hurricane, transit is far from restored

by Evan Landman

A sobering new report was released recently by Ride New Orleans, a nonprofit advocate group. It covers the erosion of the city's transit network in the years following 2005's Hurricane Katrina, revealing that while the city's population and economy have largely recovered, its transit services have not. 

Some key points from the report:

  • In 2004, RTA's peak fleet was 301 buses. By 2012, that number had dropped to just 79.
  • Revenue hours declined from over 1 million prior to the storm to fewer than 600,000 in 2012.
  • By 2012, only 36% of the pre-storm daily trips had been restored.
  • In 2012, no bus routes in the entire system operated at 15 minute or better frequency, down from 12 previously.
  • Meanwhile, overall service level on the city's historic streetcar routes declined by only 9%, and the number of available vehicles (66) is the same today as in 2005.

Ride's frequency maps tell the story even more viscerally:

Image (1)

What accounts for the difference between the relatively robust network of 2005 and today's service offering? Obviously no transit agency would have an easy time recovering from the damage done to its vehicles and operational infrastructure by a catastrophic event like Katrina. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. But nearly a decade on, something has prevented RTA from ramping back up to its prior service level.

Ride's analysis points to a number of factors. First is a decline in fare revenues, attributable both to the smaller population of the city since the storm, the diminished service offering, and a base fare of just $1.25 which hasn't increased since 1999. Second, since the storm, RTA's operating costs have increased dramatically, to around $168/revenue hour. This is much higher than many peer agencies, and as such limits the amount of service RTA is able to deploy with its current resources.  The report also raises questions about the agency's decision to prioritize the restoration of the historic streetcar system. 

It's clear that RTA has faced unique challenges; even the transit systems effected by Hurricane Sandy did not have to deal with the mass population displacement or degree of infrastructure damage New Orleans sustained. But while the city's transit service is today in dire straits, if Ride's analysis is correct, it cannot long continue, as it appears RTA is now operating at a deficit, and rapidly drawing down its reserves.

Thus, an opportunity exists on the horizon, for RTA and for the city of New Orleans: to reimagine transit in a manner that helps more people travel to more destinations more easily, and to develop a durable system less vulnerable to disruption. Clearly this would be a difficult undertaking, but if continuing down the present path implies continuing to provide vastly inadequate service, at an exhorbitant cost, perhaps it is a necessary one.

11 Responses to New Orleans: nine years after hurricane, transit is far from restored

  1. EngineerScotty July 26, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    Since 2005, we’ve seen Louisiana move from a leaning-Democrat state, to a state that tends to lead GOP–with a Republican governor and legislature, and a mostly-GOP congressional delegation. Governor Jindal, in particular, is the sort of economic conservative that tends to be hostile to public transit.
    Possible reasons for this shift:
    * Much of the population lost in New Orleans were the mostly poor, mostly black residents in the Ninth Ward, especially devastated by the hurricane, many of whom were renters or uninsured, and simply never came back.
    * As much as the hurricane (and more importantly the subsequent mishandling of the cleanup) was a political disaster for the Bush Administration nationally, it was a disaster for the Democrats locally, many of whom were up to their eyeballs in corruption (not that the state’s Republicans are any better, but they weren’t in power).
    * The election of President Obama seems to have been the last straw for the old Southern Democrat (Edwin Edwards notwithstanding); in Louisiana, as in many of its deep-south neighbors, the Democrats are essentially the black party.
    In short, it seems that in Louisiana, the political legacy of Huey Long–probably one of the most leftist politicians to ever hold major political office in the US (even if he was a corrupt SOB), is close to being dead and buried; and the current administration is of a party that doesn’t consider transit a priority.

  2. Chad N July 26, 2014 at 11:09 pm #

    I read through the attached report, but it left out some of the critical factors. The transit outcomes are horrible, and it would be great to know how more transit service can be restored to New Orleans.
    First issue – which of the statistics are for bus only, or combined bus & streetcar? If the statistics include streetcar operations, then comparisons to bus agencies on metrics such as boardings/revenue hour and $/revenue hour are meaningless.
    Second issue – The focus on fare revenue in the report seems misplaced: taxes are the primary source of operating funds. Chart 8 shows that operating expenses have been stable at about 75% of the pre-Katrina level. Where is the transit service?
    Is Veolia (the contract transit operator) milking the City dry? Are corrupt officials or unions making off with the money instead of putting buses on the street? Or are post-Katrina rehab expenditures, such as buying all new buses, lumped into the operating expense category?

  3. Roland Solinski July 27, 2014 at 12:45 am #

    My best guess is that the high operating costs per revenue hour/mile are because of overhead – fixed costs like facilities, equipment, and management that are spread over a far lower amount of service. NORTA’s physical plant is pretty much the same system that sustained a bus fleet three times larger than the current one. It’s not easy to scale back, and RTA had no incentive to scale back because FEMA paid to rehab all these facilities, but they evidently did not pay to rebuild the full bus fleet.
    Also, you argue that taxes are the main source of revenue but Chart 12 shows that this was not historically the case… in 2000, farebox revenue was roughly equal with tax revenue. However, tax revenue has kept pace with inflation, while the fares have not. It’s no wonder ridership is growing – the fare is declining every year in real terms! It’s now the equivalent of $0.90 in 1999 dollars.
    I’m sure there is some corruption somewhere in the bureaucracy, and some weird bone-headed waste like training crews to build streetcars from scratch in-house instead of buying them from a manufacturer like Siemens or Alstom. However, funny business isn’t the source of the RTA’s budget woes or its awful service outcomes.

  4. Eric July 27, 2014 at 4:38 am #

    I assume the main purpose of the streetcars is tourism, not transit. So they might be justified on measures other than number of riders.

  5. Jim D. July 28, 2014 at 6:58 am #

    Chad, the breakdown of revenues and expenses by mode for any U.S. transit agnecy can be found at the National Transit Database site.

  6. MLD July 28, 2014 at 7:51 am #

    If you look at the NTD data, they are providing about as many service hours of rail as they used to, but bus is about half as many service hours.
    In terms of peak-period vehicles, they operate ~60 peak period buses vs ~300 in 2004. Rail they operate ~20 vehicles at peak vs 47 in 2004.
    @Eric the streetcars have a lower percentage of work trips than many other systems (onboard survey results: but I wouldn’t say their main purpose is tourism. Most of the use is “transit” purposes – trips to work, school, medical appointments.

  7. Tony Filippini July 28, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Stories like this tend to make me a bit disappointed; seeing local groups not work with, or unable to work with, their governmental agencies. NORTA is a public agency with a publicly available commission, meetings, and planning programs. The report gives a sense that its purpose is solely to discredit the agency and start over. Clearly, there hasn’t been coordination between the non-profit and NORTA with the report.
    NORTA uses are very data driven strategy for service improvements. To compare 2012 with 2004 does not do a good job detailing the large differences between the NOLA of then and now. 2012 is also two years ago, the NORTA system is continuously evolving still and there are a number of service improvements slated for later 2014.
    It’s important for groups like Ride New Orleans to engage in the process and impact the outcomes. I personally give the transit agency a TON of credit for the work they have done to restore service and create new infrastructure for the city. The report pretends too much of the city is back to normal and that things to match 1:1 again. That just seems too simplistic of an analysis to me.

  8. Nathanael July 28, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    Sounds like fares need to go up to $1.75 to catch up with inflation.
    The streetcar system should obviously be the priority — it’s more efficient to operate.
    But it seems like the bus system needs to be revived. As others have said, the population is in very different areas than it was before Katrina and so the bus routes should be different than they were before. (The streetcar routes, being ancient and accordingly mostly staying in the higher-elevation parts of the city, are still pretty good.)

  9. Alex July 29, 2014 at 7:20 am #

    I’m curious how the employment geography changed after Katrina. What is referred to in this post as RTA is actually NORTA, the somewhat misnamed (perhaps aspirationally) New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, which in fact only has jurisdiction over (less than?) half of the metro area. I believe NORTA doesn’t have a fare union with the other transit providers in the region, so if the jobs went to the suburbs, riders would face a big penalty.

  10. Zoltána July 30, 2014 at 4:54 am #

    I’m not sure there’s a great deal of reimagining to be done. New Orleans has a well-designed network that’s about as much of a grid as the street layout in New Orleans permits.
    There are some tweaks that could potentially make it work better and some places where better transfer facilities and perhaps timed transfers would be an improvement, but the present network offers a clear path forward for improved service should more resources become available.
    From afar, it seems that tweaking the network, increasing fares to a sustainable level, finding what operating efficiencies can be found and lobbying for more funds on the basis of conditions for deprived communities and of economic recovery are probably the steps to be taken from here.

  11. Dexter Wong July 31, 2014 at 12:45 am #

    I would like to point out that streetcars are to New Orleans like cable cars are to San Francisco, they are icons to tourists and residents alike. New Orleans is the only city that runs only trolleys that are of the old-style (1920s vintage or a modern car that has a 1920s appearance). In the 1980s, FTA (or its predecessor UMTA) examined the New Orleans operation and determined that all they needed were new paint on their shop machines. Modern streetcars would be out of character for the city (although one was tested there, pre-Katrina).