RTA’s ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ plan revives decades-old dispute over bridge’s HOV lanes
Algierines’ first inkling that the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority has its sights set on the Crescent City Connection’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes arose in July 2022, when a senior planner at the agency met with West Bank residents to discuss its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plans.
With the BRT, mass transit proponents assert, Algiers riders would bypass bridge traffic congestion and reach the downtown area in 10 minutes, a third of the time it currently takes.
Not only would this be equitable for the city’s impoverished residents who rely on mass transit to go to work, doctor appointments and school, the BRT could lure commuters away from their cars and onto its buses and thereby reducing traffic congestion, the RTA says.
But to accomplish its ambitious goal, the RTA needs exclusive access to lanes now used for general traffic.
The HOV lanes, the RTA says in a 2022 presentation, are “key to BRT success and connection to West Bank.” Click here to view the BRT presentation.
NEW PLAN, OLD ARGUMENT
Indeed, according to the RTA’s 2018 Strategic Mobility Plan, a long-term planning document, the BRT “high-capacity transit” system has been in the works at least five years. It involves working with other governmental agencies “to begin implementing dedicated lanes, (HOV) lanes, signal priority improvements, queue jumps and other priority treatments for transit routes.”
While the BRT plan is relatively new to New Orleans, the selling point is not. Transit authorities made similar arguments more than 25 years ago, the last time they sought full use of the bridge’s HOV lanes.
“It will save up to five minutes a trip,” Noe League, operations manager for Westside Transit Lines, which ran West Jefferson buses for Jefferson Parish, was quoted as saying in an August 1996 Times-Picayune story. “We are hoping it will attract more customers.”
“Our plans are to market our ability to bypass traffic and get people to work on time,” RTA spokesman Pat Judge was quoted as saying that 1996 story.
NO DECISIONS MADE
The RTA’s board of commissioners and the New Orleans City Council have endorsed the BRT’s 15.4-mile route so that the agency can apply for federal funding to begin further design work, with the goal of having the $250 million to $350 million transit line operable in 2027. Federal and local money would pay for BRT.
And the RTA says it has made no decisions on whether it will seek exclusive access to the HOV lanes. But it is apparent this is what the RTA wants.
In two public meetings in Algiers, Dwight Norton, the RTA’s chief of planning and infrastructure, reminded audiences that the federal government gave the state of Louisiana $48 million specifically for the HOV lanes when planning began for the second Mississippi River bridge that opened in 1988.
In designing the new bridge, planners set aside two lanes for mass transit buses and vehicles carrying seven or more passengers, or HOV-7. That didn’t immediately happen until years after the bridge opened, as much of the bridge’s and expressways’ current configuration was years from completion.
For instance, after the new bridge opened, state officials began re-decking the old bridge. As such, the HOV lanes were used for general traffic heading to the West Bank only. Commuters accessed the HOV lanes from Convention Center Boulevard to return to the West Bank, an arrangement that was expected to be in place until 1993. At the time, the HOV lanes only went as far as Gen. de Gaulle Drive.
The West Bank commuters grew attached to the lanes.
WEST BANK UPROAR
It was 1996, and state transportation officials were preparing to limit the transit lanes to buses and passengers carrying seven or more passengers. Environmentalists demanded it. Mass transit proponents wanted quicker bus rides to the Central Business District. Transit providers in New Orleans and West Jefferson wanted to increase ridership.
And, more pressing, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, which controls the Crescent City Connection, warned that the federal government would want the state to repay the $48 million it provided for the transit lanes if the bus and HOV-7 plan wasn’t implemented.
The state finally made the conversion to HOV-7 and buses only in March 1997, reportedly under pressure from the federal government. Yet, in advance of the conversion, no one applied to the state to operate vehicles meeting the HOV-7 requirement. The demand for HOV-7 fell short, although as many as 80 RTA and West Jefferson buses, many carrying few passengers, were said to be crossing the bridge daily.
The West Bank uproar was predictable.
The Times-Picayune’s Op-ed page frequently carried letters to the editor whose authors argued for and against converting the HOV lanes.
Just as BRT supporters assert today, Terrytown commuter Stephen Romano opined in an April 1997 letter to the editor that mass transit would alleviate traffic congestion on the main spans. “As long as we stay in love with our solitary use of our automobiles and this continues to be the primary mode of transit lanes across the Crescent City Connection, I foresee a return to the days of BNB — Before New Bridge. Then it will not matter what mode any of us chooses; we’ll all be sitting in traffic. Just wait and see.”
“Those of us who ride the bus each morning greeted the first use of the transit lanes with applause and congratulations to the drivers,” Harvey resident Marian Moore wrote in April 1997. “At last, mass transit had arrived in our region!”
Their letters prompted a response from Algiers resident and lawyer Glenn Orgeron, who the following month wrote, “‘Mass transit had arrived in our region’ is about meaningful as saying that with sailing the Titanic, a new form of transoceanic travel had arrived.’
“Clearly, the transit lanes are woefully underused, and nothing in the (opposing view) letters provides any basis for not going forward with a rapid reduction from the useless HOV-7 requirements to an HOV-2 system that would at least provide for effective use of the lanes,” Orgeron wrote.
West Bank “residents flooded state Rep. Jackie Clarkson’s office with complaints, took to the radio airwaves and responded to newspaper call-ins in droves,” the late Times-Picayune journalist Paul Atkinson wrote. “They accused the state of taking away their best route home for no reason and without consulting the people who use the bridge most.”
“‘Everywhere I go the people talk about it,’ said Clarkson, D-Algiers. ‘Ten people in a crowd know about it and are raving. As the other 90 hear, they start raving too.’”
HOV-2 BECOMES LAW
Public meetings were held, including one by the Regional Planning Commission. Gov. Mike Foster ordered a study to determine whether the seven-passenger requirement could be reduced to two passengers and would ask the federal government to approve HOV-2.
Clarkson and Terrytown Rep. Steve Windhorst, who is now a state appeals court judge, filed legislation in support of HOV-2. The New Orleans City Council unanimously supported the legislation.
“We want to see traffic going across in vehicles with two occupants instead of largely unused buses,” Windhorst was quoted as saying in an April 1997 Times-Picayune report..
Act 748 became state law in the 1997 legislative session, allowing HOV-2 and setting up the reverse traffic flow that we see today. A bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers from Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes cosponsored the legislation. The federal government allowed the change to HOV-2.
“It’s been a major undertaking,” Clarkson was quoted as saying in August 1998, days before the HOV-2 configuration we see today took effect. “I’m very happy it’s going to be open … but I’m very disappointed it took so long.”
Now 87, Clarkson said that the oil industry factored into planning for the second Mississippi River bridge. Anticipating an oil industry boom would bring thousands of jobs to New Orleans’ Central Business District, planners envisioned corporate vans carrying numerous passengers to work daily, helping alleviate the need for downtown parking.
But there was “an oil industry bust,” Clarkson says, and so there was no need for the HOV-7 configuration.
Just how many Algiers and Jefferson Parish bus riders cross the Crescent City Connection on an average weekday is not immediately known.
According to an Aug. 26, 1996 Times-Picayune report, 10,300 people cross the bridge in buses daily, a figure attributed to “transit officials” and likely included Algiers and West Jefferson riders.
In October 2021, according to the RTA, 1,800 riders crossed from Algiers to downtown New Orleans each weekday on RTA buses, meaning during the earlier part of the day.
During the same time period, more than 81,360 vehicles cross the bridge’s general travel lanes from the west to the east bank, and 4,890 vehicles were counted crossing toward the east bank on the HOV lanes, the RTA said, citing state DOTD figures.
Returning to the West Bank in the evenings during that month were almost 88,730 vehicles on the main general travel lanes and 2,140 on the HOV lanes. RTA bus rider numbers were not available.
With BRT, the RTA hopes to increase ridership across the 15.4-mile route, and that motorists would be willing to accept longer commute times to benefit bus riders. In Algiers, the RTA plans to rebuild its park-and-ride facility on Wall Boulevard, which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.
Under the current plan, the BRT would terminate at Wall Boulevard. But the RTA envisions extending BRT up Gen. de Gaulle Drive to Holiday Drive, according to a draft plan. Presumably, Gen de Gaulle is in line for losing general traffic lanes.
Just how long the RTA has been considering BRT is unclear, although its 2018 Strategic Mobility Plan provides guidance.
The plan lays out a long-term blueprint for the agency to follow. The 2018 document barely mentions “Bus Rapid Transit,” but the RTA’s intentions to seek exclusive access to travel lanes so buses can bypass traffic congestion is clear.
According to the plan, by 2022, the RTA was to “identify potential dedicated lanes, High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes … and other priority treatments for transit routes to minimize delay from areas with high congestion.”
Between 2023 and 2027, the RTA seeks to “work with local governments, the Regional Planning Commission, and the state to begin implementing dedicated lanes, High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, … and other priority treatments for transit routes.”
The plan makes numerous references to “high-capacity transit,” which includes bypassing traffic congestion through dedicated lanes. Other telltale elements: Build transit centers in Algiers, downtown and eastern New Orleans; “reduce conflicts with automobiles and study special transit lanes:” and, before 2027, “start building dedicated lanes, HOV lanes, and other priority treatments.”
In April 2022, the RTA conducted a non-scientific survey to gauge public opinion on the feasibility of BRT. The survey, which was floated on social media less than three weeks, did not ask respondents whether they support losing access to the bridge’s HOV lanes. Rather, the survey sought general views on matters such as whether commuters would be ok with longer commute times.
According to the RTA, about 1,000 people participated in the survey, almost evenly divided between bus riders and drivers. About 150 respondents live in Algiers, according to the RTA. The survey showed “strong support” for dedicated bus lanes, Norton told Algiers residents last year.
The RTA currently is updating its 2018 plan. The draft document includes extending BRT along Gen. de Gaulle to Holiday Drive. Click here to read the draft 2023 Strategic Mobility Plan.
The RTA also envisions a collaboration with its Jefferson Parish counterpart, JP Transit, to expand BRT from downtown New Orleans to Armstrong International Airport in Kenner, via Veterans Memorial Boulevard, and to extend it to Marrero along the Westbank Expressway, according to the draft document.
PUBLIC, CITY COUNCIL PUSHBACK
RIDE New Orleans, a nonprofit that promotes effective mass transit in the region, is promoting BTR. “Some critics may argue that New Orleans drivers won’t accept or won’t be able to handle the creation of bus lanes,” the group’s policy manager Dustin Robertson wrote in March 2022 under the headline “Street Synergy: Giving Buses their Fair Share.”
“It’s true there may be a learning curve and some resistance, but if the city gets serious about implementing bus lanes and clearly communicating the benefits, these issues can be mitigated,” Robertson wrote.
In July 2022, District C Councilman Freddie King III hosted a meeting at the Algiers Regional Library through which the RTA’s Dwight Norton could introduce Algiers residents to the BRT plan. A second meeting was held at the Algiers library in January 2023.
While Norton stressed that no final decisions had been made on dedicated and the HOV lanes, one resident pushed back, saying aloud, “can this be stopped, or is it too late?”
“If the community wants to see this designed a certain way that has zero impact, right, that the bus operates only in mixed traffic and does not get to bypass congestion at all – if that is the overwhelming desire of the broad cross section of the community, we will be responsive to that,” Norton said in reply, according to a Times-Picayune report.
The RTA’s board of commissioners and the City Council have blessed BRT’s “locally-preferred alternative” 15.4-miles route, which specifies the roads the transit line will follow from eastern New Orleans to Algiers.
The approvals were needed so the RTA could apply to the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grants Program for money to begin designing the route. For the next 1 1/2 years, the RTA will embark on a design phase that includes details about dedicate lanes. And part of this phase is public outreach.
Whether the RTA will target the bridge’s HOV lanes, or seek exclusive use of any of the main general travel lanes remains to be seen. Without dedicate lanes, buses would mix with general traffic, which stabs at the heart of BRT.
What appears apparent so far is that there will not be across-the-board political support or the RTA commandeering the HOV lanes.
The RTA went before the City Council’s Transportation Committee in February in hopes of getting approval for the route. The committee deferred voting at the request of Councilman King, who spoke about the concerns raised by his Algiers constituents who worry about BRT exacerbating traffic congestion at the Crescent City Connection.
King noted that “taking away a lane of the CCC — Crescent City Connection — or dedicate the HOV to only buses I think would be detrimental to the residents of the West Bank.”
In March, the entire City Council unanimously approved the route, clearing the RTA to seek the federal funding.
But as part of getting that approval, the City Council sought assurances that no decisions had been made about the HOV or dedicated bus lanes. “This resolution today simply makes clear that no determination has been made regarding design options, such as designated HOV lanes or lanes,” said Councilman Eugene Green, whose district will shoulder a portion of the BRT route.
The RTA, according to the council’s resolution, “will continue to work with riders, neighborhood residents, the City of New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, and State officials on the design of the corridor concerning potential impacts to traffic and parking.”
As it moves forward in the 1 1/2-year design phase, the RTA has hired a local public relations firm, The Hawthorne Agency, to help with community outreach.
According to its website, The Hawthorn Agency’s work history includes involvement in a study of Gen. Meyer Avenue’s conversion “into a safer and more pedestrian and bicycle friendly corridor.”