RTA panel votes to get federal money for ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ plan

The board that governs the Regional Transit Authority on Tuesday (Jan. 24) voted unanimously in favor of the proposed corridor the agency’s controversial “Bus Rapid Transit” line will follow, connecting the bus riders in Orleans Parish’s far reaches – Algiers and New Orleans East – to the downtown area.

In what appears to be a perfunctory vote, the RTA Board of Commissioners in effect approved a policy document that’s needed in order for the agency to begin the process of securing federal grant money for the Bus Rapid Transit line. Click here to see the commission’s meeting.

Likened to a light-rail transit system, the BRT proposal is intended to carry bus riders from New Orleans East and Algiers more rapidly, more reliably and more frequently to the downtown New Orleans area, where some 80,000 people work, according to the RTA.

To accomplish this, the BRT line buses would get dedicated lanes on the roadways, allowing them to bypass traffic congestion.

And therein lies a brewing controversy, for West Bank residents and commuters, at least.

Aside from taking general traffic lanes and dedicating them for use by buses on the BRT line, the RTA wants to take the Crescent City Connection’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes away from commuters so BRT buses can use them to carry riders between Algiers and downtown New Orleans.

RTA officials say they’ve established their case as to why they think BRT is needed. What’s ahead, RTA officials assert, is determining how this transit system will be created. The ‘how’ appears to involve defining the details, like whether commuters will lose access to the CCC’s HOV lanes.

“So what I will say to the public is, we will inform you. We’ll still talk about the ‘why.’ But in my mind that question is answered by what we want to do. The ‘how’ is not,” RTA Commissioner Fred Neal Jr. of New Orleans told the board Tuesday.

“And the ‘how’ is going to be really hard,” Neal added. “And not everyone will be happy. I’ll say I can imagine that in the end we all might not get what we want. But that is the process.

“That is why we need to engage and to continue to put our best foot forward as we talk to the community about how and why we get rapid transit not just in New Orleans, but in our region,” he said.

On Monday night, Neal attended a contentious informational meeting at the Algiers Regional Library. Saying Tuesday the meeting was “well attended,” Neal thanked the RTA staff that attended and which meets with members of the public, “especially when they don’t always agree with you or want to hear what you have to say.”

Of the Algiers meeting, Neal said there were “a lot of questions, lots of concerns” raised by many of the more than 60 people who attended. “We don’t need to go into those right now,” Neal said.

On Feb. 14, RTA leadership will present the BRT corridor plan to the New Orleans City Council’s Transportation Committee.

In addition to the City Council and the federal government, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has say in the BRT plan.

“Regardless of what we want, DOTD still has a huge voice in this,” Lona Edwards Hankins, the RTA’s interim chief executive officer, said Tuesday.

The RTA Board of Commissioners has seven members who are appointed to the panel. Three of them are appointed from Jefferson Parish, among them former Parish President Tim Coulon.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Joseph Ewell Jr., of Jefferson Parish asked RTA staff whether it will include the proposal to use the HOV lanes in the BRT line when it appears before the City Council committee next month.

Edwards Hankins said the staff will not.

“The only thing the RTA will present to the committee is that the BRT will cross the bridge,” Edward Hankins told Ewell. “The RTA already does that. The ‘how’ is still in the works. We don’t know the ‘how’ right now. Sitting here today, we don’t know the ‘how.’”

The policy document the commission approved Tuesday, which you can read by clicking here, includes the RTA hosting “several more rounds of community engagement” concerning the BRT planning. The agency “will continue to work with riders, neighborhood residents, City of New Orleans and state officials on the design of the corridor concerning potential impacts on traffic and parking.”

Said Neal: “This isn’t a one-neighborhood decision. It’s not a West Bank, it’s not a New Orleans East, it’s not even a downtown decision. It is an all-of-us decision.”

In addition to the RTA, Jefferson Parish’s bus system, Jefferson Transit, also has busses that carry riders from the West Bank to downtown New Orleans. Those buses also use the bridge’s HOV lanes.

Monday’s Algiers meeting and Tuesday’s RTA commission meeting came during a week when the HOV lanes are temporarily closed for scheduled maintenance. This led to heavier-than-usual traffic for West Bank commuters, as congestion was heavy on the elevated Westbank Expressway, giving drivers a taste of what might be in their future.