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South Louisiana's affordable LA Swift bus, started after Katrina, might be saved

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(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the June 24, 2013 edition.)

Bus service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge on LA Swift--which charges only $5 one way for the 80-mile trip--will be extended for another month to July's end while a possible takeover by local entities is considered, Louisiana's Dept. of Transportation and Development said Thursday. Earlier this month, DOTD said the post-Hurricane Katrina service that began in October 2005 would end on June 30 because of a cut in fed funds and Louisiana's inability to provide a federally required match. Advocacy groups and others lobbied hard this spring to save the line that connects residents to jobs, school and health care, while keeping cars off congested Interstate-10.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber or BRAC and the development group Greater New Orleans, Inc. are among those trying to save the service. "Our cities are increasingly interconnected, and we're stronger economically if we work together as a region on mutual interests," Adam Knapp, BRAC's CEO said last week. "An integrated region needs reliable public transit." LA Swift's ridership exceeds 12,000 a month, he noted.

Knapp said BRAC represents nine parishes while GNO, Inc., led by CEO Michael Hecht, covers ten parishes. The two groups formed a Southeast Super-Region Committee in 2009 to address mutual interests, Knapp said. "We're asking businesses and organizations to contribute their ideas and their financial and in-kind resources to LA Swift," he said. Several companies have already donated marketing, advertising and IT services.

"Saving LA Swift isn't a done deal yet but we feel strongly that it should be," Knapp said. "We urge residents to contact their elected representatives to express their support."

The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution Thursday encouraging DOTD to find funds to continue the bus line.

Hotard Coaches in New Orleans is contracted by the state to run LA Swift buses. On Thursday, Natalie Barranco, chief operating officer of Geismar, La.-based Calco-Hotard Group, said riders count on the service to get to work. She was pleased about the one-month extension as Swift's future is decided.

Most LA Swift passengers are African Americans commuting to work or visiting family and friends, Rachel Heiligman, executive director of Ride New Orleans, said last week, citing results of a survey this spring by her group, AARP Louisiana and the Center for Planning Excellence. College students ride the bus too. The service from New Orleans stops at LaPlace, Sorrento, Gonzales and Highland Rd. in Baton Rouge before reaching Baton Rouge's Capital Area Transit System or CATS bus terminal. What began as post-Katrina transportation to help displaced residents has become an essential form of transit, Heiligman said.

Last month, 12,691 passengers rode LA Swift, according to Calco-Hotard Group. Between 250 and 530 riders took the bus daily. With 12,690 riders a month at $5 a trip over twelve months, Hotard probably collects about $761,400 yearly. DOTD spokeswoman Jodi Conachen said fares go directly to Hotard. Last week, nether Calco-Hotard nor DOTD would say whether the fares are used to pay for LA Swift drivers, bus maintenance, fuel and insurance.

To date, the Federal Transit Administration has funded most of the service but Washington is strapped for cash and the fed's post-Katrina assistance to south Louisiana is shrinking eight years after the storm.

Heiligman explained the state's quandary with LA Swift. The FTA has given Louisiana $2.3 million a year for Swift. In the state's fiscal year starting July 1, the FTA is willing to contribute $1.6 million annually toward the bus line if local authorities provide a "match" of $750,000. Earlier this month, DOTD said it couldn't come up with that amount, however.

Heiligman said, under FTA rules, the fares that Hotard collects can't be used toward the federal match of $750,000, which must be raised by local government or other local entities. So the roughly $761,400 collected in fares, though slightly above the funding required by FTA, doesn't count towards the match.

"The legislature didn't appropriate funds to LA Swift this session or any session previously," DOTD's Conachen said last week. Knapp of BRAC noted that some legislators, particularly state House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger of New Orleans, have been supportive of LA Swift, however.

Any decision to continue LA Swift would be entirely local, according to the FTA last week. Revenue generated by Hotard doesn't count as matching, FTA confirmed.

LA Swift stops at towns, and the federal money supporting it over the last five years has come mainly from FTA's Section 5311 Formula Grants for Rural Areas. Section 5311 provides capital, planning and operating assistance to states for public transit in rural areas. In addition to FTA's rural grant, funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or ARRA, passed by Congress in 2009, have also been used for LA Swift.

In April, Ride New Orleans, AARP Louisiana and the Center for Planning Excellence surveyed more than 300 LA Swift riders. They found that 81 percent were African American, 70 percent use LA Swift daily or weekly, 74 percent are from families with incomes below $40,000 and 32 percent don't have access to a car.

Among those surveyed, 51 percent take the bus to work, 44 percent ride it to see family and friends and 14 percent use it to access health care. Though not mentioned in the survey results, students take the bus to and from college. Some 53 percent of riders surveyed were willing to pay more than the current fare.

A 2011 survey by Calco-Hotard found that social and leisure trips, including visits to family and friends, had grown since 2009, and ridership was younger than two years earlier.

For this article, I had hoped to talk to some LA Swift riders at a stop in New Orleans Thursday but it rained so that idea was nixed. I'll relay my experience taking LA Swift to Baton Rouge and back last September just after Hurricane Isaac. Boarding in front of New Orleans Union Passenger terminal that morning, passengers slid $5 bills through the fare box on the bus, which was already fairly full with riders who had started at Elks Place. Our driver traveled up I-10 in white-knuckle traffic, stopping at LaPlace where debris from Isaac was piled high. Several people got on and off, and we continued to Sorrento and Gonzales, dropping off and picking up passengers. We stopped at Highland Rd. in Baton Rouge, and then the city's Greyhound terminal before ending at the Capital Area Transit Systems or CATS station on Florida Blvd. on time. The trip took an hour and a half. I caught a CATS bus to my appointment. So far, so good.

When I returned to the CATS station during the evening rush, dozens of commuters boarded LA Swift to New Orleans, and others got on our bus at the Greyhound station nearby. The bus was full leaving Baton Rouge, mostly with commuters and students. Traffic on I-10 was bumper to bumper, the highway was being widened and heavy equipment lined the roadbed. Our bus was sideswiped by a truck, dislodging the driver's rear-view mirror. He stopped, called headquarters and jerry-rigged the mirror. We continued to Gonzales, Sorrento and LaPlace. Commuters and students worked, napped or watched sports on the bus's TVs. We reached Elks Place in New Orleans on time. Hotard's drivers in both directions were safety conscious and courteous, and the buses were comfortable. The day trip had gone much better than I expected. And traveling as a group kept vehicles off I-10, saved fuel and reduced emissions.

This spring, an Action Alert From Ride New Orleans urged LA Swift supporters to contact City Council members, their parish president, mayor's office and the New Orleans and Capital Area Regional Planning Commissions. LA Swift rider Melissa York, who commutes from Highland Rd. and I-10 in Baton Rouge to New Orleans daily, started an online petition to save the service. To sign the petition, visit rideneworleans.org on the web.

At the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, spokeswoman Patrice Bell Mercadel said Thursday she was hearing about LA Swift's one-month extension for the first time. "We are not involved in it," she said. Under a partnership, Illinois-based Veolia Transportation manages RTA's day-to-day operations.

Heiligman said Greyhound's daily schedule between New Orleans and Baton Rouge doesn't work for most commuters, its buses make fewer stops than LA Swift and fares are much higher. Last week, inquiries to Greyhound Lines about reports that it might lower some of its New Orleans-to-Baton Rouge fares if LA Swift were terminated weren't answered.

Knapp of BRAC last week said if only part of the $750,000 in needed matching funds for LA Swift is raised, service could be reduced or costs could be cut in other ways to save the line. end

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