Five weeks after deferring a vote over concerns about Mississippi River bridge traffic, the New Orleans City Council on Thursday (March 23) unanimously approved a controversial plan tied to a new bus transit line that could mean motorists across the West Bank lose access to the high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
The vote in effect was a procedural hurdle the Regional Transit Authority needed to cross before it can apply for federal funds to pay for its $250 million to $350 million “Bus Rapid Transit” system. The council approved the 15.4-mile route the BRT system would follow from Algiers to eastern New Orleans.
Proponents liken the BRT system to a light rail system, only involving buses. It would allow mass transit riders to travel to their destinations quicker. However, to make that happen, buses would need exclusive access to roadway and bridge lanes.
For motorists across the West Bank, including Algiers, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes and beyond, this potentially means they’ll lose access to the Crescent City Connection’s HOV lanes or general travel lanes on the bridge.
And that, West Bank motorists know, would exacerbate the the often heavy traffic congestion they face during their daily commute.
The RTA has insisted publicly that the details aren’t yet settled. Those details include identifying which general travel lanes would be dedicated for exclusive use by buses.
More than 81,000 vehicles cross the CCC’s main spans to the east bank during weekday mornings, while about 1,800 people cross it in RTA buses, according to figures the RTA has released. Almost 4,900 vehicles cross eastbound in the HOV lanes during the same timeframe.
The route as approved by the council Thursday will on its West Bank leg terminate at the RTA’s long-shuttered park-and-ride facility on Wall Boulevard near Gen. de Gaulle Drive.
District D Councilman Eugene Green, who represents an area that includes Gentilly, the Upper 9th Ward and a swath of the Lakefront area, reiterated the RTA’s position Thursday that no detailed decisions have been made. He sponsored the resolution the RTA needed in so the RTA can begin seeking federal funds.
“This resolution today simply makes clear that no determination has been made regarding design options, such as designated HOV lanes or lanes,” Green said. “That’s important to me, because though we didn’t have significant participation in our (Feb. 14) public meeting, I’ve heard from members of the community their concerns.”
Green added that, “I want to make it clear to the public that we are open for additional suggestions and expressions of concerns or support.”
“So the Regional Transit Authority will engage in further community outreach before any final decisions are made,” he said, reiterating a pledge the RTA’s board of commissioners made in January when it approved the route.
The council’s Transportation Committee, which Green chairs, heard the RTA’s presentation about the proposal during its Feb. 14 meeting.
But the committee deferred action on the matter then at the request of District C Councilman Freddie King III, who raised his constituents’ concerns about the impact the BRT system will have on traffic on the Crescent City Connection.
King said then that he wanted to meeting with the RTA’s executive director Lona Edwards Hankins. While he did not publicly disclose the nature of his meeting with Edwards Hankins, King’s contact apparently assuaged his concerns.
“Thank you for the conversation we had concerning this,” he told Edwards Hankins. He said he explained the concerns of not only Algiers residents but “the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, Plaquemines Parish and beyond.”
“So, this has my full support,” King said.
The council heard comments from about seven people in person, and from more than 20 who submitted comments through the council’s online portal.
The comments were overwhelmingly favorable to BRT. None of the commenters appeared to speak about the personal impacts BRT would have on their lives. There were no personal testimonials. Rather, they reiterated general talking points about housing stock, access to jobs, protecting the environment or spoke about how BRT would help others.
For instance, Allene La Spina, executive director of Bike Easy, told council members that two of her nonprofit’s staffers use RTA buses to travel to eastern New Orleans twice weekly to work with students on bicycling-related activities.
“They spend a lot of time in the bus,” La Spina said. “And the Bus Rapid Training system is basically gonna make it easier for us to give all of our services to everyone in greater New Orleans.”
The BRT system is years away from completion. The RTA, which still must identify local funding to match federal funding, hopes to have the system up and running in 2027.
The primary funding source would be the the Federal Transit Administration’s capital grant program.