Public transportation in New Orleans, it seems, has never been easy. As early as 1880, a reader of the Daily City Item complained that “when roughs get into a street car, the driver must leave his mule, and go to fight the crowd single-handed,” whereas “in other cities he would have a conductor to help him.”
Today, the issues facing New Orleans transit have changed, but they are no less urgent than the mobile hoodlums of 135 years ago. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, it is clearer than ever that the effects of the storm profoundly worsened the quality of public transportation in the city, particularly for the New Orleanians who need it most.
What Katrina Washed Away
The immediate impact of Katrina on New Orleans transit is well documented. Service was suspended for months, and the entire bus fleet of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) was rendered unusable by flooding.
Yet the storm also caused more permanent demographic changes in the city—changes that have arguably damaged the RTA’s long-term viability more than any floodwaters.
Paramount among them was the sharp reduction in the size of the low-wage labor market. Not only did the city’s economy sharply contract following the storm, but many of these workers—the primary users of the city’s transit system—simply never returned to New Orleans. As the chart below shows, the storm did little to dent the growth of high-wage jobs in Orleans Parish, while the number of workers who earn less than $40,000 a year today remains well below its pre-storm count, according to the Census Bureau.
These New Orleanians were, for all intents and purposes, the RTA’s customer base. Images of the St. Charles streetcar winding its way through the upscale Garden District aside, Census Bureau data confirms that—as in most U.S. cities—the vast majority of transit-reliant commuters were low-income (and mostly African American) residents in the years leading up to the storm.
When tens of thousands of these commuters left the city for good, it put the RTA in a precarious position. As any transit rider can attest, the relationship between provision of service and population isn’t linear at all; a neighborhood of 5,000 people is not equally well served by buses that run every thirty minutes as a neighborhood of 10,000 with buses that run twice as often. In the former situation, people will probably abandon transit altogether, as the service is not frequent enough to rely upon.
In a perfect world, the RTA would have kept service at exactly the same level as before the storm. But with buses half as full, doing so would have been financially impossible. So, service was cut, and it has continued to stay at reduced levels even ten years later.
In fact, transit service has worsened even as the city population has rebounded. While over 30 percent of residents fled the city post-Katrina, the population of Orleans Parish bounced back to only about 22 percent lower in 2014 than in 2004. At the same time, vehicle revenue miles (the distance total bus fleet has driven while in service) declined a whopping 53 percent, and vehicle revenue hours (time in service) declined 39 percent. Before the storm, the RTA operated about 300 buses at peak service. Today, the number is closer to 80.
RTA Needs More Reliable Funding
Improving the RTA, then, will require a twofold solution: the agency must find money, and it must regain ridership.
In the long term, these two objectives will complement each other, through frequent and convenient bus and streetcar service that connects workers with jobs and restores the public’s trust in the agency’s reliability.
But all this will require money—money the RTA currently does not have.
Which brings us to the RTA’s funding structure. It doesn’t take a policy wonk to see the origins of the agency’s predicament: it relies most on revenue sources that have proven insufficient and unreliable since the storm.
The problem begins at the local level, where the bulk of the RTA’s operating funds comes from a 1 percent sales tax. Despite the city’s booming number of high-wage jobs and strong growth in tourism, inflation-adjusted sales tax revenue essentially is the same now as it was in the early 1980s, according to data from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
The solution, at least in the short term, is more reliable funding from the state and federal governments to help the RTA get back on its feet. As it stands, however, the RTA is subject to fundamentally flawed approaches to transit policy both in Baton Rouge and in Washington.
The level of state support for transit agencies is a rarely discussed topic. Yet vast state-to-state discrepancies exist and are key to understanding the particular plight of public transportation in New Orleans.
Louisiana is not the worst offender when it comes to transit funding, but it is pretty close. In fiscal year 2013, the government provided a total of $5 million to be shared among every transit agency in the state. On a per-capita basis, that amount is less than 0.5 percent of the money that states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York invest, according to to an annual study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The federal government has been more generous to the RTA in the post-storm years, but not in ways that will help improve reliability and frequency.
In general, federal law prohibits major transit agencies from using Department of Transportation dollars for operating expenses. Instead, they must devote the federal money they receive—whether it comes through formula programs or competitive discretionary programs—to capital projects.
It’s a policy that creates perverse incentives for cities to build new transit infrastructure rather than improve the service they already have, and it has lately come under scrutiny in New Orleans. As a blistering report by the advocacy group Ride New Orleans recently noted, the RTA has received substantial federal support for expansions to the city’s streetcar lines, which serve predominantly white and wealthy neighborhoods.
Yet New Orleans transit is also subject to an additional (and less discussed) layer of perversity when it comes to federal funding.
Unlike many cities of comparable size, New Orleans actually does qualify for federal operating grants because, ever since Katrina, the RTA has run fewer than 100 buses at peak operation—the metric that U.S. Department of Transportation uses to determine eligibility.
The RTA subsequently benefited from $13 million in federal operating grants in 2013—about 15 percent of its total operating budget. As a result, however, the agency and its private contractor actually have a disincentive to bring service back to pre-Katrina frequencies; if they were to run two dozen or so additional buses, the federal support that makes up a sizeable chunk of their budget would disappear.
Truly Regional Transit
For the RTA to stay relevant, though, it must not simply invest in more service. It must also invest in service that does a better job of connecting the places where New Orleanians live with the places where they work.
In this regard, New Orleans faces an issue that is disturbingly common among U.S. cities—as the director of Ride New Orleans noted on PolitiFact.com, the Regional Transit Authority isn’t very regional at all.
Despite its name, the RTA only serves Orleans Parish, which includes the city proper and its eastern suburbs. Yet the metropolitan area includes six other parishes. Jefferson Parish, which forms the city’s western and southern suburbs, actually has more people than Orleans, though its bus system is even more paltry.
Compounding this problem is the fact that New Orleans is less important in the context of the region’s economy than it was before the storm, particularly for low-income workers.
In 2004, 67 percent of New Orleans residents in low-wage jobs (defined here as paying between $15,000 and $40,000 per year) worked in the city proper, according to the Census Bureau. Today, that figure is just 58 percent. At the same time, the share of regional low-wage jobs in Metairie—the largest suburb in Jefferson Parish—increased 14 percent.
Little surprise that, even though the number of low-wage workers in Greater New Orleans has declined 21 percent since the storm, the number of those workers with commutes greater than 50 miles actually increased 22 percent.
Cities Should Make Regional Transit a Priority
Katrina and its aftermath were, in some ways, problems unique to New Orleans. In no other American city, after all, do so many of the most vulnerable citizens live below sea level, protected from rising water only by the power of civil engineering. Yet there is also a growing consensus that the problems Katrina wrought upon the city were inherent in more deeply rooted American problems—problems of racial antipathy, spatial segregation, and phlegmatic governance.
New Orleans transit is no different. While the storm harmed the RTA’s solvency, it also simply exacerbated problems that were neither new to New Orleans nor unique to it. The parish-level Balkanization that plagues transit in Greater New Orleans should be familiar to any New Yorker who has had to transfer from the subway to the PATH train. Transit-reliant Texans know the detrimental effect of nearly-nonexistent state support for public transportation. And in Atlanta, where a new downtown streetcar line was recently built with money from the U.S. Department of Transportation but bus service in outlying areas continues to languish, the impact of misguided federal spending priorities is clear.
Ten years since the storm, much attention has been paid to the inequities inherent in the way New Orleans has regrown. Fixing New Orleans transit will allow the next ten years of redevelopment to proceed more equitably than the last ten years have. But it will also show that public transportation in a distressed American city is capable of playing the bad hand that it was dealt.