Who gets a de Gaulle car lane? Bicyclists, buses or both?

At a time when Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s administration is closing car lanes in favor of bike lanes, the Regional Transit Authority is studying a plan that could mean that drivers lose a travel lane on part of Gen. de Gaulle and would be barred from using the Crescent City Connection’s HOV lanes.

The concept, called “Bus Rapid Transit“, or BRT, would be designed to carry bus riders to downtown New Orleans from Algiers and New Orleans East faster and more efficiently, primarily through the use of street lanes reserved for exclusive use of buses.

Through this program, the RTA hopes to improve services to existing riders and increase ridership with routes that connect New Orleans’ outlying areas to yet-to-be-built transportation hubs in the downtown area where jobs are concentrated. Click here to view the BRT presentation.

The RTA is in the early stages of a feasibility study and has made no decisions on how its Bus Rapid Transit plan will be implemented, Dwight Norton, the RTA’s director of strategic and long term planning, told about 60 residents on Thursday (July 28) at the Algiers Regional Library. The conceptual design is expected to be complete by the end of 2022, and riders would be using the new transit system by 2027, according to Norton’s presentation.

District C City Councilman Freddie King III hosted the meeting and invited RTA officials to brief Algiers residents on the concept.

‘Dedicated bus lanes’

In April, a mere 1,000 New Orleans residents responded to an online survey, roughly half of whom identified themselves as bus riders and the balance being drivers. Norton said 12 percent to 15 percent of the respondents were Algiers residents. Many residents who attended the meeting said they were unaware of the survey.

The results showed “strong support” for a dedicated travel lane for transit buses, Norton said, while 30 percent of respondents voiced support for dedicated bus lanes as long as it didn’t interfere with drivers’ commutes.

“Again, we are exploring this right now,” Norton told the residents. “We’re trying to figure out where people are” in terms of opinions.

The RTA has identified three options for the Bus Rapid Transit line’s West Bank destination:

  • The Wilty Terminal under the elevated Westbank Expressway in Gretna;
  • A proposed “park and ride” facility on Wall Boulevard just off Gen. de Gaulle; and, 
  • The Algiers Regional Library.

Of the options, the library destination would potentially reach the most people, more than 9,300, according to the RTA. It also would involve the Bus Rapid Transit line on Gen. de Gaulle from the Crescent City Connection to Holiday Drive – potentially where dedicated bus lines would be placed, if at all.

Likened to a “light rail” transportation system, but with buses, these rapid transit systems generally involve taking a car lane and converting it for exclusive use as bus lanes. Or, new bus lanes are built. In Algiers, the concept could involve building dedicated bus lanes on the Gen. de Gaulle neutral ground.

‘Road diets’

The Bus Rapid Transit plan seems to be at odds with the Cantrell Administration’s Moving New Orleans – Bikes program. This bicycle-centric program in many cases has involved “road diets,” meaning the city converts car lanes into protected bike lanes. That happened on MacArthur Boulevard, and the Cantrell Administration hopes to replicate this design on Gen. Meyer Avenue, Woodland Drive and a portion of the Woodland bridge.

The Cantrell Administration proposes installing a shared use path along Gen. de Gaulle, according to the city’s “Bikeway Blueprint.” Such a path could be installed as a sidewalk-type feature or on the neutral ground, where the RTA could install a dedicated bus lane, if it does not absorb an existing car lane. Bicycle proponents have pushed to include bike lanes along Gen. de Gaulle. But whether they succeed remains to be seen.

The seemingly conflicting plans for Gen. de Gaulle were not lost on residents who attended the Bus Rapid Transit meeting.

“Can you share with the bike lanes?” David Wadleigh, a critic of the city’s bike lane program, jokingly asked Norton.

And as both plans play out in Algiers, residents are bracing for heavier motor vehicle traffic as the Belle Chasse bridge and tunnel are replaced by a new toll bridge on Louisiana Highway 23. State officials forecast that once the new bridge is in use, many motorists traveling to and from Plaquemines Parish’s west bank communities are expected to divert to Algiers via the Woodland bridge to avoid paying tolls.

Addressing concerns from an Algiers residents during the July 28 meeting, Norton said the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will require the RTA to conduct traffic studies. 

“A lot more traffic analysis is yet to come,” Norton said.

HOV lanes’ original use

Meanwhile, Norton hinted that the Crescent City Connection’s HOV lanes would be returned to their original use when the newer bridge opened in 1988: Strictly mass transit.

He noted that federal mass transit funds were used to help pay for the second bridge, and the HOV lanes were originally reserved for vehicles carrying eight or more passengers. Under the Bus Rapid Transit plan, the HOV lanes would carry buses in both directions simultaneously and could be used by emergency vehicles. 

The impact on traffic that this HOV conversion would cause is on travel lanes is unclear, as vehicle counts were not immediately available.

An average of 2,300 individual riders cross the Crescent City Connection on RTA buses during weekdays, Norton said. Under the Bus Rapid Transit plan, the buses that would be assigned to the new routes would be larger than traditional buses. This presumably means the RTA hopes to carry more transit users.

By contrast, almost 156,000 vehicles crossed the bridge’s spans in 2011, according to the most recent state annual average daily traffic numbers publicly available. That was a 9-percent increase over the prior year. The state also has said that 63 million vehicles cross the Crescent City Connection annually, and that averages to more than 172,600 vehicles per day.

The RTA has created a “community advisory committee” for Bus Rapid Transit project and has invited the Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council, the Algiers Point Neighborhood Association, Connect Church, Heroes of New Orleans and the Old Algiers Main Street Association to be part part of this committee.

It’s unclear whether these entities have accepted the RTA’s invitation or whether the committee has met and taken a position on the Bus Rapid Transit project.

‘Complete Streets’

The Bus Rapid Transit plan already has a foundation of support in place.

Norton said the RTA would need approval from the City of New Orleans and the state, which own the roadways that would be transformed under the Bus Rapid Transit project.

Like the state of Louisiana, New Orleans has a “Complete Streets” policy, which call for “a more comprehensive and integrated transportation network that balances the needs of all users traveling in the public right-of-way, including people walking, bicycling, driving, and using transit,” according to the city.

To help guide its policies, New Orleans government has a “Complete Streets Working Group,” whose 19 member organizations include the RTA and various municipal agencies. 

The RTA, Norton said, will advocate for its thousands of riders as it seeks to implement Bus Rapid Transit.

Also included in this working group is the New Orleans Complete Streets Coalition, a private organization led by the nonprofit Bike Easy –  which promotes the city’s bike lane program.

Another entity in this coalition is Ride New Orleans, which seeks an improved regional mass transit system. Ride New Orleans also is actively promoting dedicated bus lanes for the city, according to information it posts on its website.

Norton said the RTA is undertaking the Bus Rapid Transit plan to help people in the far reaches of New Orleans – in the East and Algiers – reach their jobs where jobs are centrally located. A 25-minute commute by car often means a 45-minute commute by bus, he noted. And this reality disproportionally impacts the city’s Black residents.

“Access is always measured in time,” Norton said.