Missing the Bus



On any given day, it's common to find groups of frustrated residents, often late for work, waiting and waiting on street corners for a bus, sometimes for more than an hour. Often the bus' scheduled time to arrive comes and goes, and then the next scheduled time passes, and still the bus is a no show. When it finally arrives, it doesn't so much pull up to the stop as it hobbles to the curb like a wounded dog.

"The wait, it's awful," says Rose Ruffins, as she watches for the bus on a recent Friday evening. She has taken the bus to work for the past 15 years. "I often have to wait 40 to 45 minutes. It's like it comes at random (times), like they don't have any particular schedule. And many of [the buses] appear to be downright raggedy."

The long waits for often bedraggled buses that have characterized riders' experiences since Hurricane Katrina swamped most of the Regional Transit Authority's (RTA) fleet more than a year ago may be coming to an end, however. RTA spokeswoman Rosalind Blanco Cook says reinforcements are on the way. Starting around the first of the year, 68 buses will be added to the RTA pool. "Relatively soon, the service will improve," she says.

Although the size of the fleet will double from its current 65 buses to a total of 133, RTA is "not adding new buses to the schedule at this point because of budget constraints and limited ridership," Cook adds. "But we do hope that as time goes by and as ridership increases, we will increase routes." Ridership is down from the approximately 124,000 people who rode the bus each weekday before Katrina to the 21,000 to 22,000 riders who now take the bus on those days.

Instead of increasing the number of buses on existing lines or adding additional routes, the extra buses will be used as spares or reinforcements that will be dispatched when a bus breaks down or requires routine maintenance. Currently all 65 buses in the RTA fleet are listed on the schedule and there are no backups if a bus breaks down, which is one of the reasons riders often encounter long delays.

"Whereas we may have had four buses on a route (prior to the storm,) we now have maybe one bus on a route," Cook says. Of the 372 buses that comprised the RTA fleet prior to the storm, 202 were destroyed in the flood. In addition, the Upper Ninth Ward warehouse where the buses were repaired was inundated with 5 feet of water, which destroyed mechanics' tools.

The backup buses that will roll into town at the first of the year are arriving from Baton Rouge, where RTA has provided supplemental service for the Capitol Area Transit System (CATS) since October 2005 as part of an Emergency Public Transportation Service funded by FEMA to help CATS handle the influx of evacuees from New Orleans and relief workers in need of public transportation. FEMA halted funding for all the additional CATS routes on Dec. 1, except for one that provides free service to a FEMA trailer site.

RTA customers in New Orleans say not only are they left waiting on the curb, but when buses do arrive they are dirty and generally in bad shape with broken windows, trash strewn in the aisle, ripped seats and malfunctioning heaters and air conditioning.

"They are ratty, absolutely ratty," says Patricia Kelly, a longtime rider of both Orleans and Jefferson Parish buses. She and Rose Ruffins both say they see buses from other cities on RTA lines and that they are not in good repair.

Cook says the observation is correct. Most of the buses in RTA's fleet, both current and those returning from Baton Rouge, are aging, and many now in use are on loan from public transit agencies across the country. "And of course, they don't loan their best buses," she says. "Many need repairs."

RTA is trying to address the appearance of the public transportation vehicles, especially the streetcars along Canal Street, which Cooks points out are decorated with Christmas wreaths. However, she says, "mechanical issues are the priority."

With funding from FEMA, RTA began providing free service in New Orleans on Oct. 1, 2005, and a total of about 30 people rode on five routes. The free fares ended on Aug. 6, when FEMA halted its funding. While a portion of RTA's revenues derive from fares, the remaining operating funds come from sales taxes and hotel fees, sources that are still far below their pre-Katrina levels, Cook says. But the agency could not afford to run even its limited number of buses without funding from the federal government, she adds.

Today, RTA in New Orleans operates 28 routes, two streetcar lines and a paratransit service for people with disabilities. Before Katrina, however, RTA manned 46 bus lines and the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. Although the St. Charles streetcar won't be fully operational for another year because downed oak trees destroyed the line's power grid, Cook says the streetcar will resume service along the Central Business District loop from Canal Street to Lee Circle by the end of the year.

To help keep the financially strapped RTA running, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) last month approved the transfer of $13.6 million initially earmarked for RTA capital projects, such as adding new tracks, repairing signs or buying buses, to be used for operating costs. Normally, the feds do not fund operating costs, but because RTA's revenues are still low and the agency doesn't foresee building new lines or buying new buses anytime soon, FTA allowed the transfer. Due to an emergency federal provision established after the storm, RTA will not be asked to match the funds, as is typically required.

In addition, the FTA transferred $2.1 million once earmarked for rural transportation to continue funding LA Swift. That program provides free transportation between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, allowing displaced residents to look for work and repair their homes in the Crescent City. RTA will take over operation of LA Swift and will run seven buses a day until the free fares expire on March 31.

While the FTA money comes at a time of dire need for RTA, "it's not like we keep getting new money every time you turn around," Cook says. "It's great that we can use it (for operating costs) because the need is so great, but it's not new money."

RTA mechanic Lawrence Stovall works on one city bus while - another waits for repairs. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER

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