LA Swift slows to a halt
by Len Bahr, PhD*
Just weeks before Hurricane Katrina invaded New Orleans on August 29 2005, I had a brief meeting on coastal issues** with then New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, now under indictment for corruption. By pure coincidence I brought up the need for an interstate/intercity passenger rail system along the northern gulf coast for many reasons, including hurricane evacuation. He showed no interest.
In October that year, two months after Katrina, a bus-based passenger transit system known as LA Swift was instituted to assist commuters between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. LA Swift was envisioned as a temporary, federally subsidized, state run program but the clean, comfortable, Wi-Fi connected buses running on a timely schedule became popular with thousands of loyal passengers each month, including young professionals like my daughter Emilie, now working as an urban planner in New Orleans, and her boyfriend Beaux, an assistant attorney general in Baton Rouge.
Nevertheless LA Swift will sadly cease operating at the end of this month when its federal subsidy runs out. Here’s the official announcement:
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) announced that LA Swift, a primarily federally funded bus service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that was initiated after Hurricane Katrina, will cease operations on June 30, 2013 when the federal funding for the program ends. The program was created as a temporary option for affected citizens to travel between New Orleans and Baton Rouge as they recovered from Hurricane Katrina.
To continue this localized service past June 30th would require an approximate $750,000 per year in local funds to match a decreased federal fund contribution. At this time, local entities have not identified funding to subsidize the service.
The LA Swift Service began on Oct. 31, 2005. The service was previously run with a combination of funding through a Federal Transit Association (FTA) grant and a $5 passenger charge per one-way trip.
While an increase in fares would offset the operating cost, FTA regulations do not allow those revenues to be applied toward the required local match; consequently, regardless of any reasonable fare increase, local funds would still be required.
That last paragraph makes no sense. If the cost of a round trip ticket increased from $10 to $16.25 and if ridership did not decline, LA Swift would presumably break even. Nonetheless, according to the above announcement FTA regulations would disallow the system to continue without a local sponsor, even if it paid its own way. This rule is ridiculous; are ticket fares paid in Monopoly money?
The decision to end LA Swift has gone largely unnoticed by the media and I’ve seen no reaction from public officials. Why was this shutdown not discussed during the regular legislative session, just ended? Where are the voices of Mayors Kip Holden and Mitch Landrieu? Shouldn’t there be reactions from the Department of Economic Development (DED) and the Baton Rouge and New Orleans Chambers of Commerce?
What are the thoughts of Senators Landrieu and Vitter and Congressmen Steve Scalise, Bill Cassidy and Cedric Richmond? On June 10 Mr. Richmond was interviewed on the Jim Engster radio show (guest hosted by PAR president Robert Travis Scott). I called into the show to discuss LA Swift and Representative Richmond said that he would look into some means of reinstating the LA Swift funding (the relevant discussion takes place between minutes 41 and 42 on the podcast).
Passenger transit systems are universally judged to be in the public interest but they cannot normally pay their own way on fares alone and thus require public or private subsidies. A system that for eight years has been moving people comfortably and efficiently between the two major cities in coastal Louisiana, while reducing traffic density, accidents and greenhouse gas emissions, should not be allowed to die. It ain’t high speed rail but it’s a step in that direction.
Speaking of passenger rail service, in 2009 Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal derailed an application from his DOTD secretary Bill Ankner to compete for $110 million in federal stimulus money to reinstate the former passenger rail service between BRLA and NOLA. Dr. Ankner was subsequently fired for his insubordination. This sad situation was described here on May 16, 2011.
The imminent demise of LA Swift smells like a symptom of the same anti-mass transit thinking that poisoned potential coastal rail service in the entire Gulf coast. When will pragmatism overcome partisan ideology?
*Founding Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
**I then represented Governor Kathleen Blanco as her coastal science advisor.