New Orleans RTA prepares for major bus route changes this month with 'all-hands-on-deck' approach

New Orleans RTA prepares for major bus route changes this month with 'all-hands-on-deck' approach

In a revamp sure to please some riders and irritate others, some bus lines will run more often, later at night or further along major corridors, while others will cease to exist.
September 11, 2022

By Matt Sledge, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

After four years of planning and preparation, the Regional Transit Authority on Sept. 25 will launch a wholesale bus system reboot designed to speed the average trip and make it easier to reach Jefferson Parish.

In a revamp sure to please some riders and irritate others, some bus lines will run more often, later at night or further along major corridors, while others will cease to exist.

The changes come as the agency attempts to recover from a huge falloff in ridership in 2020. To mixed reviews, the RTA last month unveiled a new smartphone app. Later this month, it will shift its central bus transfer hub from Duncan Plaza to the main library and launch a new hub for New Orleans East.

One rider advocacy group frets that the RTA hasn't conducted enough outreach about the bus line makeover, which the agency has dubbed New Links. However, Alex Wiggins, the RTA's chief executive officer, predicts a smooth debut.

"It's an all-hands-on-deck moment," he said in a recent interview. "Short of a weather event, I'm very confident that we're going to roll out New Links very well."

Change comes

Despite huge shifts in where people live and work, the RTA hadn't conducted a wholesale redesign since Hurricane Katrina. Starting in 2019, planners analyzed where how people moved around the city and asked for public input. In March 2021, the RTA chose a design meant to speed the average ride without cutting off too many neighborhoods.

Several principles rule throughout. Long criticized for favoring tourists over locals, the RTA will make some streetcar riders wait a few minutes extra to free up operators for more frequent bus service. In a nod to hospitality workers, the RTA is also offering more late-night and weekend service.

Inside Orleans Parish, the system is relying more often on transfers between lines, an inconvenience the agency hopes to offset by more frequent service on trunk routes. The agency has also trimmed by hundreds the number of bus stops so drivers don't get bogged down at every corner.

Several key lines will see major tweaks. The route with the most riders, #94 Broad, will become the #9 Broad-Napoleon. At one end it will go further, down Napoleon Avenue to Tchoupitoulas. At the other end it will come to a halt earlier, at the new transfer hub near the Read Boulevard library.

Today's #39 Tulane, the second most popular line, will become the #3 Tulane-Elmwood. Its service will extend to the Elmwood shopping area in Jefferson Parish.

The #88 St. Claude, the third most popular line, won't see big changes. But it will have a new name, the #8 St. Claude-Arabi, and likely more riders, since the #5 Marigny-Bywater is going away.

Rounding out the top four, riders of the New Orleans East mainstay #62 Morrison who want to go to Little Woods will need to switch to the #68 Little Woods Loop at the library transfer hub.

Outreach questions

In the face of those and dozens more changes, Wiggins says agency employees have been pounding the pavement.

"We actually are deploying transit ambassadors and our managers to the field to actually meet riders at bus stops," he said. "Let them know what's changing."

The agency also has maps of the new and updated routes on its website and a future trip planner.

But the leader of one rider advocacy group, Courtney Jackson, of RIDE, said that so far, the outreach effort is falling short. When her group visited a senior living facility in New Orleans East on Wednesday, residents who lack smartphones expressed fear and confusion, she said.

"We live in a city that has so many lower-income transit riders," she said. "You need to have paper in hand, going out to communities."

With the greater reliance on transfers at seven neighborhood hubs, Jackson also worries about "rider dignity." The current downtown hub lacks adequate seating and shelter, she says.

The new Main Library hub is intended to serve as a temporary depot until the agency can build a permanent hub at Basin and Canal streets. Higgins said construction will take between two and five years once the hub is designed and approved.

Despite her reservations about outreach, Jackson said her group is excited and believes the switch should go ahead as planned. Wiggins promised that the agency will listen to feedback.

"If we need to make adjustments, we certainly will," he said. "At the end of the day, we're here for the public."

Riders return

The bus system redesign has the potential to build upon the ridership gains over the past year, Wiggins believes. Ridership is 60% of its pre-pandemic rate and rising, he said.

Likewise, Wiggins is optimistic about the state of the agency's finances. Federal aid filled the hole from the dropoff in sales tax revenue at the start of the pandemic, and tax revenues are currently running ahead of agency predictions, he said.

"I'm hoping and praying that we emerge better than we were before COVID," he said.

The agency is in the early stages of planning for a a new type of bus line that is designed to offer fast, rail-style service with dedicated lanes, limited stops and greater amenities. However, those proposals are unrelated to this month's redesign.

A new pass

At the end of August, the RTA made another change that affects the many riders who depend on their smartphones to buy passes and plan trips. According to Wiggins, the agency's previous app vendor announced with little warning that it was ending the relationship.

On short notice, the agency was forced to create an app of its own, called Le Pass. Some social media users say they've run into trouble buying passes or tracking buses and streetcars in real time.

"Their route planning, their ticketing information may be in a different place than it was before," said Wiggins. "There absolutely may be some features about the app that are wonky that we may need to adjust."

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