When transit service is substandard, can we plan for capital expansion?

» New Orleans fantasizes about new streetcar routes as its buses barely make the grade.

Public transportation expenditures are typically divided into two buckets: One for operations expenditures — the money that goes primarily to pay the costs of gas, electricity, and driver labor — and the other for capital investments, which sometimes means maintenance but often means new vehicles and system expansions. Because of the way in which these two buckets are funded, a transit agency that may be in dire straights in terms of paying for system expansions may be providing excellent, well-funded daily services. Or the opposite could be true. This is a consequence of the fact that federal transportation grant support, and also often local system revenues, are required to be spent in one of the two areas, with little ability to transfer funds between them. The division between capital and operations funding produces some strange dynamics and perverse incentives for transit agencies, and the results are not always ideal for the typical rider.

Take the example of New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was one of the most transit-reliant cities in the country, with more daily rides per capita on its transit system than Philadelphia, Seattle, Baltimore, or Portland. Of commuters, 14% took transit to work on an average weekday in 2000. By 2010, the figures had been slashed; just 7.5% of commuters took transit to work, according to the Census. The following map shows that this change occurred across the city.

Drag vertical line from left to right to see before and after (if this does not work for you, view the article in a web browser). “Before” image is from 2000, “after” from 2010. Images from Social Explorer.

The change in transit use has a lot to do with the changes in the city’s demographics before and after the storm; it has become slightly whiter and wealthier. But it also has a lot to do with the terrible transit service that the city has provided. A recent report from local transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans notes that only 36% of the transit trips offered in 2005 were available in 2012, despite a population that was 86% as large as it was in 2005. While in 2005, 80% of routes had scheduled headways of 30 minutes or less during peak hours (and 28% had peak headways of 15 minutes or less), in 2012, only 24% of routes were offered every at least 30 minutes and just 9 percent at least every fifteen minutes.

The result is the following map of service levels, from Ride New Orleans, which demonstrates clearly that service is simply unacceptable. The red routes in the map illustrate routes that serve customers with headways of more than 30 minutes. Only the green routes — which are the Canal-Cemetery and St. Charles Streetcar routes — come at least every fifteen minutes. Most of the city has truly insufficient transit options. Non-white neighborhoods have been particularly hard hit.

But people are streaming back into the buses and streetcars nonetheless. Trips per revenue hour, which measures service efficiency, are now almost as high as they were in the early 2000s and continue to rise. In fact, the New Orleans system now beats out what are considered respectable transit agencies in Miami, Minneapolis, and St. Louis on that count. And ridership continues to grow. Fortunately, Veolia — a private-sector* transport provider that runs New Orleans’ transit system under contract — has been expanding service to meet demand. In January, it added some new routes; in September, it is restoring service to an additional 13 routes. Things are looking up on the operational front, but the system will still be far less effective than it was before Katrina. Yet the city’s transport planners are also laying out plans for a different type of improvement: Many more streetcar lines running throughout the city, as illustrated in the map at the top of this article.

Last month, local planners revealed a $3.5 billion expansion plan that is contingent on securing funding from a number of sources. The proposal suggests 34 track-miles of new streetcar service by 2030, going far beyond the “Desire” streetcar that is currently partially under development along Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. A new line would extend north to the University of New Orleans; another east through the Lower Ninth Ward; a couple would flow through the central business district; and a connection would be made between the Canal and St. Charles Streetcars. It’s an appealing vision, particularly when combined with three new bus rapid transit and two light rail lines planners have also envisioned. And, like most U.S. regions, New Orleans’ transit investments so far have been substandard, so planning for the future is reasonable.

But it’s also a plan that comes across as incongruous with the rather disappointing state of the day-to-day bus services that most people rely upon. New Orleans’ plans for new transit expansions are in many ways the consequence of federal guidelines that guarantee that capital expansions will be pushed through whatever the state of regular operations. Because transit support from Washington, D.C. explicitly prevents spending on operations for most cities, it would be a mistake for New Orleans to pass up on the funds available for new construction.

Indeed, from a budgetary perspective, there is nothing about plans for new transit expansions that either prevent better operations or encourage it; operations and capital budgets might as well be coming from different agencies altogether. The Canal Street Streetcar is only ten years old, but its City Park/Museum branch only has trains operating every half hour, even at peak. The Loyola-UPT Streetcar, which opened last year, only provides service every 20 minutes, including at peak, not enough to allow people to rely on transit without having to consult a schedule, which should be a goal of transit operations planning.

What is the point of making the substantial investments in these capital projects if the city cannot guarantee that service on those lines will be offered acceptably? How can we be sure that all these new lines being proposed won’t receive similar mistreatment for the day-to-day user? New Orleans’ situation is not unique. Because local and state governments are expected to fund transit operations, the provision of service throughout the U.S. is highly inequitable; indeed, evidence suggests that poorer regions like New Orleans are simply unable to pay for the kinds of excellent day-to-day transit services that wealthier regions can. But both rich and poor regions are able to invest new lines, because the federal government commits to those projects. Whether these lines are funded to actually serve the people nearby, though, is another question.

One appropriate federal policy response might be to require that transit agencies receiving funds for major capital expansions guarantee that service on those new lines meets some minimum, such as headways of ten minutes or less during peak hours and fifteen minutes or less off-peak, as long as other system operations are not negatively affected. If transit agencies respond by suggesting that projected ridership doesn’t justify such service levels, perhaps such lines shouldn’t be funded at all.

* Confusingly, Veolia is a subsidiary of the French company Transdev, which is 50% owned by the French Caisse des Dépôts and 50% owned by Veolia Environnement. The Caisse is effectively a public bank controlled by the French government, and Veolia Environnement, which has some private investors, is also owned in part by the French state and in part by… the Caisse (9.3%). Which means that New Orleans’ public transit, oddly enough, is operated by a company whose primary owner is the French state. Globalization is confusing.

20 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Kenny

    Rather than refusing to fund capital improvements in regions that can’t afford the operations costs to make them useful, wouldn’t a better policy be to allow regions to take some fraction of capital improvements funds and apply them towards operations of those specific systems? Otherwise you’re shutting off development funding to some of the regions that need it most.

  • Tyler

    As a transit-dependent New Orleanian, the current lack of service cannot be understated. I ride my bike to work almost 8km in the Gulf Sun even though I live one block from the St. Charles Streetcar, supposedly the most frequent line in the City. Our most frequent line is slow, unreliable, tourist-packed and useless for locals. Federal money flows into New Orleans, in far greater quantities than the local economy can handle. Large amounts get skimmed by local construction companies, restrictions by the federal government force us to build someone else’s transit dream, and RTA is not able to match new infrastructure with new service.

    The transit system of New Orleans has so utterly failed us Post-Katrina that I find myself dodging drunk tourists in trucks trying to fit down our tiny streets instead of waiting a seeming eternity for the bus. I have found no other alternative than to forsake it entirely; save for tomorrow, as I have family in town, and we have the time to wait 20min for a 40min, 8km ride to the French Quarter.

    • EngineerScotty

      What is the primary reason for the loss of service hours? A shrunken tax base as a result of Katrina? A “death spiral” post Katrina that forced service cuts to which riders responded by riding less? Hostility from Baton Rouge, which has gone from Democratic to GOP control?

      • Nathanael

        Some of all of that. Also the complete destruction of some neighborhoods which used to ride transit a lot (including the Lower Ninth Ward), and the general decline in population (reducing the potential ridership base).

      • TransitRider

        Actually, the tax base that the NOLA transit system relies on is a 1% sales tax – which at this point is higher than before Katrina because of the very large amount of new retail that’s been constructed over the last few years. This tax accounts for more of the RTA’s operating budget than fares at this point. Nathanael is right that a lot of our transit-dependent population was unable to return post-Katrina and therefore our ridership has decreased…but there is evidence the level of service is so bad now that it’s even causing those who would otherwise rely on transit to bike, carpool, or find any way not to depend on routes that come every 60 minutes and end far too early for many of our service workers.

        We also lost our entire bus fleet in Katrina and only 1/3 of it has been replaced to this point…which correlates pretty well with the 36% restoration in service overall. It’s clear that bus riders have been the most affected and that purchasing more buses would be necessary to improve bus service significantly…rather than focusing on streetcars, it would be much more satisfying to see the RTA focus on making up this lost ground. It does make me wonder whether Veolia, which makes extra money from designing and assisting in the construction of new streetcars, is choosing this crazy method of capital expansion simply because it’s where they can make extra fees. (To those of us who live in NOLA and know how slow and unreliable the streetcar system is, it seems insane to run a streetcar that’s designed similarly to the St Charles or Loyola out to UNO – you’d take 2 hours to travel what would be a 20-minute drive.)

        • h st ll

          Good post but you are wrong about a streetcar to UNO. The Canal Street line is fast enough, faster than a bus imo. I agree that we need less stations, ability to purchase tix off board etc.

  • Nathanael

    New Orleans has made some odd and dopey choices with their streetcars (using vintage high-floor equipment?!?), but the fact is that streetcars are more cost-effective in the long run on popular corridors.

    – higher capacity
    – lower operating costs
    – vehicles last longer, and so need to be replaced less frequently, than buses

    “Rail substitution” for the best bus routes is probably worthwhile from an operational perspective. As long as it’s on the correct routes.

    • TransitRider

      The vintage equipment, lack of dedicated lanes, lack of signal priority, overly frequent stops, and lack of reduction in intersections with car traffic combine to make the current streetcar system terribly inefficient, though. When the St Charles line was down for repairs last year and replaced by a bus from Louisiana all the way downtown, it cut my trip to 10 minutes from 30 or more. Also, there is the lovely experience of waiting 45 minutes to an hour for a streetcar only to have 4 show up at once – this phenomenon of all the streetcars swinging up and down the line together results from these bad design decisions. And the new streetcar they’re building with $75M in local bonds down N. Rampart has all the same issues. If we can’t build fixed rail right, then we’re just hurting the people who need to be on time to their jobs by canceling their bus routes and forcing them to ride streetcars that take three times longer.

      • Nathanael

        I thought they did have dedicated lanes (in the “neutral ground” or median)?

        I know the vintage equipment is ridiculous. And the lack of signal priority is also terrible.

  • Dexter Wong

    From reading The Streetcars of New Orleans by E. Harper Charlton (1964), it seems that New Orleans prides itself on having an authentic streetcar system that can trace its roots back to 1835 (in the case of the St. Charles line). But that means cars that are based on technology that is over a century old. (New Orleans has never modernized like other streetcar cities.) It is to New Orleans what cable cars are to San Francisco. But cable cars are ridden mostly by tourists, so are the streetcars practical for the citizens of New Orleans? It is possible to have a streetcar with a classic appearance (but more modern electrical equipment for better performance), but would that go over well in tradition-bound New Orleans?

    • Nathanael

      So here’s the thing: it’s perfectly possible to run modern streetcars and historic ones on the same line. If you want to keep the historic fleet for tourists as a “living museum”, run some historic streetcars in amongst the modern ones. There’s no reason to make it the mainstay of the fleet, though.

      • Dexter Wong

        Another thing is that modern streetcars require modern equipment for overhauls, the RTA shops were noted for having equipment suited only for the vintage equipment that the system runs. Also historically, New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (the private predecessor of RTA)never purchased any PCC (or Brillliner) streetcars even they were available since 1935, NOPSI apparently felt that the 1920s-vintage Perley Thomas cars were good enough. Charlton, in his book, mentioned that New Orleans being mostly flat required only two motors per streetcar (with the exception of the St. Claude line cars which had four motors). New Orleans seemed quite content for its streetcars to reflect a bygone age, but how long can early 20th century equipment satisfy the needs of a 21st century city? The only time a modern streetcar was seen running in New Orleans was in a photo of a Tatra car (a demo?) running along the Riverfront line some years ago that was posted to NYCSubway.org.

        • Dexter Wong

          Apparently it is the people of New Orleans have strong feelings about what a streetcar should look like. According to the website of George Friedman, a retired professor who visits New Orleans regularly, when RTA decided to make a Perley Thomas car meet ADA standards, there was a public outcry, so the old car was left alone and the new vintage-style carbodies were made ADA-compatible.
          In 1999, CKD-Tatra did lend a Z6 streetcar to RTA, in hopes of getting an order. What did occur was that RTA bought Czech trucks and controls to go into the new vintage-style cars being built. While it might be cheaper to buy an off-the-shelf streetcar, New Orleans residents may not like them.

  • The recent calling out of New Orleans’s bus system somehow always forgets the severe trauma of Katrina on the transit system. New Orleans went from around 300 buses that were in poor shape, but did exist, leftover from decades of purchasing and maintaining buses longer than intended, to zero buses overnight. There was no funding to replace 300 falling apart buses with 300 brand new buses; hell, there wasn’t funding to pave the roads or rebuild the houses lost. So as many buses as financially possible were purchased.

    It really just isn’t fair to beat on the transit system as if it has intrinsically failed the population, when the problem is more that the political system has failed the transit system *and* the population post-Katrina. Any discussion of transit in New Orleans cannot forget this.

    • TransitRider

      I think the issue is not necessarily “beating” on the transit system itself, but on the RTA and Veolia’s refusal to acknowledge the issue and be transparent about their plans to improve the system, and/or their constraints on what they can actually do. Riders are angry and frustrated and feel like they’re not being heard – all it would take is for Veolia to step up and give an answer about why the system functions the way it does and what can be done to fix it. But that would require a kind of transparency that we definitely haven’t seen to date (and the reasons for this may go all the way up to the Mayor’s office)

  • It’s not really fair to use the City Park and Loyola streetcars as examples of how the RTA isn’t running the streetcars at a frequency that would indicate rail is necessary. Both lines are effectively branches of the Canal St streetcar, and contribute to ridership by providing a one-seat ride to people who would be deterred by transfers. There are many legitimate criticisms of the New Orleans streetcars, but focusing on the low frequency of some branches is too nitpicky.

    • TransitRider

      The City Park example is true for sure – I don’t see frequency on that branch line as a problem. But I definitely don’t agree on the Loyola facilitating one-seat rides, at least not more than it hurts all the bus riders from Central City who are forced to transfer far too close to their final destinations in the CBD and add a ton of time to their trips. Maybe this will be a different story when South Market and other developments in the area open.

      Honestly, though, the story that was sold about Loyola when it first opened was that it would facilitate one-seat rides all the way from the UPT down Rampart and St Claude…now they’re saying that the Loyola and Rampart lines may continue to turn down Canal sometimes and other times cross Canal to connect to one another. I can’t think of another transit system that has the goal of looking like a tree, with multiple confusing branch lines, rather than a clear grid.

  • Edwin Weber

    The reason that the New Orleans transit system is so useless is not mainly because of Katrina, but because NORTA is the most rotten, corrupt, incompetent and worthless excuse for a transit system in the country. At first, when Dutch Morial was Mayor, the transit system was as efficient as it was under New Orleans Public Service Inc, because Morial left things alone. It was “Slimy Sidney” Barthelemy. terrorist and gangster, who succeeded Morial as mayor, who totally wrecked the efficient organization inherited from NOPSI. SS purged most of the veteran employees, replacing them with worthless political hacks.Buses caught fire because they didn’t bother to steam clean the engines to remove excessive build up of grease, etc. Many near disasters were caused by their criminal negligence. One of the few that was reported by our Joseph Goebbels “news media” being a streetcar that caught fire on July 31,1991 due to a defective controller sloppily “rebuilt” by a political hack contractor instead of inside the barn as NOPSI had done.(AND RTA was criminally BYPASSING THE CIRCUITBREAKERS to hide the fact that their incompetent “electricians” had messed up the wiring, which kept tripping the circuitbreakers). I wrote a letter reporting all of this, and more, including an incident where a streetcar full of schoolchildren was almost killed due to the incompetence of another RTA hack) to USDOT. USDOT “investigated” this by asking RTA to “investigate” ITSELF. USDOT is as corrupt as RTA itself.
    The system was falling apart long before “Katrina”. RTA took three years to rebuild the st. Charles tracks, shutting down the line in the process. NOPSI did exactly the same thing in a fraction of the time WITHOUT shutting down the line.
    Those “old fashioned” streetcars on St. Charles are not the problem. They still serve the purpose very well, it is the crooks and incompetents operating them who are the problem. The “professional qualifications” for the local manager for Veolia, Justin Augustine, are that he was one of Slimy Sidney’s hack appointees whose main job was to try to terrorize the employees into keeping quiet about the criminal practices of RTA. “If I find out who’s leaking information around here, That’ll be their job, AND THAT’LL BE THEIR ASS!” is one of his more memorable quotes! It is creatures like him who make RTA the total mess that it is.

  • Michael

    Besides rail systems, American transit systems need better minimum service standards for bus routes.
    60 minute service just not cut it.

  • Drewski

    New Orleans is an outlier example. It has so many unique elements in its circumstances that it can barely be held up as a comparison to any other part of the US. It was one of a tiny handful of Southern cities which had significant reliance on public transit, and it had that in the context of being utterly unlike other Southern cities. New Orleans is resolutely, almost defiantly, urban, and generally on a human scale–compare it to Atlanta, or Houston, or even Austin or Charlotte.

    I’m not thrilled about Veolia having control of New Orleans’ transit service. Veolia is a for-profit entity owned almost or entirely by state agencies–much as rail operator Abellio is a for-profit subsidiary of NS (Dutch railways). Major US transit operations have generally been able to fend off privatized operation for the sake of privatized operation; in one of the most notorious examples where it did happen, with Foothill Transit in LA’s eastern suburbs, it happened less as any considered business decision than as a fit of ideological pique. (The same can be said for the privatized bus services in Nassau County NY, which were previously part of NY MTA.)

    New Orleans is a diverse and urban city which has less of an overall problem with money than it does with two other factors. One is the ongoing recovery from a destructive event no other major US city has really known. The other is that New Orleans’ interests are interpreted by both the US Congress and the Louisiana Legislature, and neither of those bodies have proven themselves remotely capable of sound decisions in the last few years. It’s a city which is not just different from the rest of the state, but one which is holding onto its diversity at the same time that state politics are stuck in the muck of racial tension. As we’re seeing across the country, racial paranoia has reached a point where it’s just not conducive to good decisions. Who would’ve thought that the Pat McCrory who pushed to make Charlotte a more urban city with sidewalks and vastly improved public transit, would be the same Pat McCrory presiding over a North Carolina trying desperately to wish itself back to the less-savory corners of the 1950s?

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