Management & Operations

The Challenge of Reviving Public Transit in New Orleans

Posted on February 1, 2006

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating assault last August, the city of New Orleans has been trying to get back on its feet. But the massive destruction caused by the storm will necessitate years of reconstruction, not just for homes and buildings but also for roads and highways. Consequently, the impact on public transportation has been tremendous. William Deville, general manager of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA), says ridership in mid-January was still only 10% to 15% of pre-Katrina levels, and fewer than half of the routes have been restored. Deville, who is running the operation from Baton Rouge because of damage to the RTA’s New Orleans offices, says hardships are plenty. Some of RTA’s employees lost their homes in the storms and are living in a Piggly Wiggly store that has been converted into a makeshift maintenance and office facility. In addition, the hurricane damaged or destroyed 200 buses and 24 streetcars, as well as tracks, bedding and overhead catenary wiring. Editor Steve Hirano recently discussed these and other issues with Deville. How much bus and streetcar service has been restored?
Nearly 50% of RTA routes have been restored. Currently, 30 of our 62 pre-Katrina routes are up and running. And, on Dec. 18, streetcar service returned to New Orleans with the restoration of the complete Riverfront line and partial service to the Canal streetcar line. Both lines are using the historic, undamaged St. Charles streetcars, which did not take on water in their home at the Willow Street barn in the Carrollton area of New Orleans. Those streetcars fortunately escaped flooding in the levee breaks following Hurricane Katrina. However, the St. Charles Streetcar line is not operational at this time due to the extensive damage from Katrina’s strong winds and falling oak trees and branches to the overhead catenary system. RTA is currently running buses along the beautiful St. Charles route. RTA has also restored paratransit services, providing service to 300 of its clients that have returned to the city. As the population returns to New Orleans and as buses, maintenance services and fuel can be secured, additional lines and service will be brought back. How has ridership been impacted by the hurricane?
Hurricane Katrina has affected all facets of life in New Orleans, and, likewise, RTA’s ridership has been impacted to a great extent. Week-by-week, ridership grows slowly, but steadily. More and more individuals and families are moving back to New Orleans — to rebuild the city, to go back to work and school, and to continue on with their lives. RTA is now averaging approximately 13,000 to 15,000 rides per day; pre-Katrina, our transit agency provided more than 124,000 rides daily. What’s been the greatest challenge in the wake of the hurricane?
One of the greatest post-Katrina challenges continues to be securing temporary housing for RTA operators, maintenance and administrative staff. Most of our workers have extensive damage to their homes, and many have completely lost their residences. How difficult is it to run the operation from Baton Rouge?
Workdays are far from routine. All but one of our New Orleans facilities suffered extensive damage, and the agency is conducting much of its business out of offices in Baton Rouge. RTA leased an old Piggly Wiggly in Baton Rouge, which we have converted into a maintenance and office facility. Some of our employees are living in the building. RTA has worked with FEMA to obtain trailers for office space, and quite soon more than 100 of our employees will work out of these trailers on the grounds of RTA’s A. Philip Randolph facility on Canal Street. That facility sustained almost 5 feet of water. How much emergency funding are you receiving from the federal government? Is it coming from FEMA?
Through FTA and FEMA, RTA has secured $47 million in federal funds for the emergency transportation plan. The emergency transportation plan includes providing public transportation in New Orleans, as well as augmenting transit services to CATS, the transit agency in Baton Rouge. In addition, park and ride services from the city of Baton Rouge to surrounding municipalities will start shortly with resources from our contracts with FTA/FEMA. RTA is also managing LA SWIFT, a shuttle service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. How many of your buses and streetcars were damaged in the hurricane? Were you able to shelter the vehicles from the storm?
Nearly 200 buses were lost to the hurricane. All 24 of the shiny, candy-apple red Canal streetcars and six of the seven Riverfront streetcars that were housed at the A. Philip Randolph facility on Canal Street fell victim to the floodwaters following the hurricane. To return streetcar service to the city, RTA has combined the systems, using the streetcars from the St. Charles line and the tracks and the power along the Riverfront line and a portion of the Canal line. How has the RTA workforce been affected by the hurricane? How many of them evacuated and have not returned?
Our entire workforce has been affected by the hurricane. Residents of New Orleans who did not leave the metropolitan area before the hurricane hit were required to leave after the levees broke and water flooded over 80% of the city. Our workers were dispersed over a wide geographic area; many were left homeless. Before the hurricane, RTA employed more than 1,300 people. At this time we have been able to bring back nearly 600 employees. How much of the RTA’s administrative and maintenance facilities were damaged by Katrina?
All of our administrative and maintenance facilities sustained extensive damage, except the Willow Street facility. The administrative offices at Plaza Drive in New Orleans East sustained severe water and roof damage; the A. Phillip Randolph bus facility on Canal Street flooded, including the maintenance bays, tools and related equipment; and the East New Orleans bus facility and maintenance/training building was severely flooded with mud and mold in the bays, pits and building. All of RTA’s tools and equipment were severely impacted. Can you run all of your routes, or are there roads that are still impassable?
The city, with the help of the state and the federal government, has done a terrific job of making the roads passable. Although many of the traffic signals are not operational, the roads are clear for the most part — except in the hardest-hit sections of the Ninth Ward, where houses ended up on the roads after the hurricane. What outlets have you used to keep the public informed of service availability?
Our contract with FTA/FEMA does not include a budget for advertising RTA service availability in the city of New Orleans. We have been fortunate to receive a wonderful amount of exposure in the local and national media concerning our transit services. All of our routes, schedules, and the current system map are available on RTA’s Website,

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