Interview conducted by: Ross Peizer, Transport for NOLA intern
Author Archives: TfNOLA
By: Stephen Crim, Transport for NOLA
“This can’t go on.” That’s what one Atlanta resident said in a New York Times article about the traffic in her notoriously sprawling, car-clogged region. At the end of the month, Georgians will vote on a one-cent sales tax increase to fund a long list of transportation projects. A local sales tax is an important source of funds for our own Regional Transit Authority. But is a sales tax the best kind of revenue source for transit?
During the Great Recession, demand for transit has gone up, as people try to economize, while bus and train frequency has been slashed as a result of drops in funding. As we know, sales-tax revenue is sensitive to the ups and downs of the economy: when times are good, people buy more stuff, and sales-tax revenue floods in; when times are bad, people cut back on their spending, and sales-tax revenue drops. So if communities keep looking to sales taxes for transit funding, are they making the ups and downs of transit funding worse?
Other communities, like Jefferson Parish, use a property-tax millage to pay for transit; the CATS system in Baton Rouge was saved earlier this year by a vote to increase property taxes as well. Property taxes are not nearly as sensitive as sales taxes or even income taxes to recessions and boom times; though our current economic problems have their roots in real estate and housing, property taxes haven’t moved as dramatically because localities don’t change their property assessments on a daily or monthly time table. Furthermore, other booms and busts (like the one around internet companies at the turn of the century) have little to do with property values. Also, from a philosophical perspective, property taxes are a logical place to get transportation revenue because land value is dependent on the transportation options around it; your land isn’t worth much unless you can easily get to and from it.
So, should localities be moving towards property taxes instead of sales taxes? How have Jefferson Transit’s property-tax-supported finances fared over the past few years? While state and local revenue is a good thing for transit, especially with little help coming from the federal government, we need to be careful to choose the right kind of revenue source.
By: Eliot Barron, Guest Contributor
You win for caring, in this little life of ours, for this short time on earth, about what we do for each other and those who come after. Sometimes the best way to do that is to honor and learn from the people who came before us. This has been a guiding principle for me personally, as I have journeyed, literally and figuratively, living (since 1975) and working (since 1991 – for taxable income) all across the country and halfway around the world. My name is Eli and I am currently a part of the Streetcar Maintenance Training Program and this is my weblog. We be blogginʼ.
Growing up within earshot of the old New Orleans-Carrolton Rail Road, also known as St. Charles Avenue, the rumble and hum of the street cars and the lines overhead are as vital in memory as the smell of my mother’s kitchen. Everyday, from age ten on, the streetcar ride home after school – from the hill on Jackson to the lower line of the old town of Carrollton – was an eye and ear opener. I heard recently that there used to be a canal down that uptown street. There was probably a streetcar line too; they used to be everywhere. These days, with all the construction and work on the trails and switches, the cars that stand between Broadway and Carrollton give everyone who goes that way a new awareness of their presence in our lives. Part of the infinite charm of the New Orleans streetcars are the associations each of us has with the singular, historic and time-honored machine. Be it sight, sound, smell, or memories of other times, every one knows about the trolley. Or do we?
As the third century of continuous operation of the St. Charles line goes on (the overhead wires for the system we have today were installed in 1892), the reality of budgets and priorities has led to the endangerment of the species.
Ironically, as the true streetcar craftsmen are retiring or seeing their responsibilities outsourced, the wisdom of the tradition of rapid transit from its origins and the knowledge for maintenance of the fleet and its value – both practical and intangible – are widely recognized and cherished. While appreciation increases, institutional memory, as well as the ever-aging system, is at risk. Yet, fortunately, New Orleans is not the type of place to let a piece of history go without a fight. After the outrage of the loss of all our lines of connectivity and more, it was that type of spunk that saved the one we had for so long. 20 years later the wins began to add up and the rail fleet began to grow again.
The Riverfront streetcar, while a victim of compromise, is a wonderful addition to the life and economy of the French Quarter and beyond. The Canal Street line is a real source of pride and self-reliance. Each of the new cars (handicap accessible and air-conditioned and painted red) was hand crafted at Carrollton Station. While all of this revival had been in my lifetime, so too was a great communal catastrophe in 2005.
Those new cars were all ruined. The power substations that serviced the city were ruined. The neighborhoods – which provided the ridership, which kept the RTA going – were ruined. And in 2008, generally speaking, the national economy was ruined.
Skip forward to 2012, and at the beginning of the year at any rate, just six short months ago, you have one man, a jobless vet with a deep and abiding sense of place, volunteering with an outfit you may know and love as Transport for NOLA. Pushing for progress, calling for services, planning on paper and in person: all things a fellow can get behind. Best of all, while sympathetic to the bicycle, the whole thing was about the streetcars. By the end of this year, one new-new line may be added to the list. While this is many years in the making, it is happening now, and thatʼs what matters. Also happening now, which matters, is the stimulus package as manifested by the people of the Regional Transportation Authority and its managing concern, Veolia Transportation. With money from the Federal Transportation Administration, the seasoned Veterans, so to speak, are raising up the next generation of RTA mangers. Thatʼs the idea anyway. With this in mind, the Streetcar Maintenance Training Program represents many culminating factors – like historical precedence and preservation, like sustainable development, like real deal economic stimulation. It is hands on and teaches how to keep the streetcars rolling. Itʼs awesome, and to steal a quote from the local basketball fans: “Iʼm in” for good.
By: Rachel Heiligman, Transport for NOLA
Despite the outpouring of community support for extending the streetcar to Poland Avenue, we learned last week that the RTA’s federal TIGER IV grant application was unsuccessful. The project would have created a cohesive transit corridor connecting downtown neighborhoods with the CBD and Union Passenger Terminal along St. Claude, N. Rampart and Loyola while promoting multi-modal connections between several bus routes, Amtrak, Megabus, LA Swift and Greyhound.
There’s a lot of speculation as to why this project was overlooked. Some point to the RTA already receiving TIGER funding for the Loyola phase of the streetcar expansion program. This phase is still under construction and at a recent RTA Board meeting, CEO Justin Augustine suggested that the RTA is unlikely to receive a second TIGER award until the RTA successfully completes construction of the first phase.
Another reason could be that despite selling $75 million in local bonds to finance the second phase of the extension along N. Rampart, the RTA has made little progress in advancing that project over the last several months. It’s possible that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) sees the slow movement on this project as indicative of a lack of capacity at the RTA.
Or perhaps the federal government has concerns that the streetcar design will not result in improved transit service over the bus routes that the streetcar will likely replace. Basic design principles such as putting the streetcar into a dedicated transit lane, spacing stations farther apart so the streetcar can reach higher speeds, and giving the streetcar signal prioritization so that it never sits at a red light would ensure that the new streetcar line results in fast and efficient service. But the RTA and City have not committed to these design principles despite the persistent requests of multiple community leaders.
The good news is that the RTA remains committed to the project. Augustine indicated that the RTA will continue to pursue TIGER funding in the next grant cycle. But perhaps it’s time to develop alternative strategies for the RTA to fund this project.
In addition to TIGER grants, the USDOT also offers federal credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit through their TIFIA program. Local revenue sources should also be explored. Tax increment financing, special assessment districts, and parking, sales, property, and gas taxes are just a few of the methods that should be considered. With a disappointing new federal transportation bill now in place, creating local revenue sources for transit becomes all the more critical.
By: Rachel Heiligman, Transport for NOLA
Earlier this year, the RTA committed to release their transit data for use by third parties. In March, the RTA made their map and schedule data public. Planning your transit trips became much easier when Google Maps picked up the data and began offering directions by transit. Google continues to innovate – now their maps feature every bus and streetcar stop. By clicking on the stop, you can access a list of the routes that service that stop and their upcoming departure times.
Have you ever wondered how far you can get riding public transit in a given amount of time? Mapnificent makes it possible to map that distance while changing the length of time and time of day. From UNO, a 30-minute bus ride will get you to New Orleans East, Mid-City, Lakeview and the Marigny.
These tools are just the beginning. On July 12, a new tool for bike and transit riders will be unveiled at the GOOD Ideas for New Orleans event.
We’re still waiting for the RTA to follow up with their release of real-time bus and streetcar data. They’ve put out their own ETA tool in a limited release to get feedback on the data’s reliability. Transport for NOLA continues to support the real-time release by connecting the RTA with local software developers. At the RTA’s June Board meeting, we offered a $30,000 challenge grant to help the RTA overcome technical hurdles in getting the data out and setting a target release date of August 10th. We remain a committed partner of the RTA’s and look forward to sharing news of the release and even more transit tools with you in the near future.
By: Stephen Crim and Jackie Dadakis, Transport for NOLA
Last week, Congress finally passed a new transportation bill. For the last three years the United State was operating under extensions of a transportation bill originally passed in 2005 and which expired in 2009.
Unfortunately, unlike the progressive Senate bill proposed early this year, the final transportation bill will not help our region continue its progress in becoming a place that affords residents a variety of transportation options.
The new law reduces the level of funds available for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. New Orleans has benefited from a rapid expansion of bike lanes, and we should be proud of the complete streets ordinance passed by the New Orleans City Council in the fall. However, reductions in federal funding will make it challenging for City and State leaders move this work forward.
Also, the bill does not allow federal dollars to be used for transit operating assistance like the earlier proposed Senate bill did. For the past few decades, federal funds could only be spent on capital projects, like the Loyola Streetcar line, while states and cities have had to come up with the money to pay drivers and cover other costs that keep buses and trains running. When states and cities run short of operating money, as is increasingly the case, they have to scale back their operations cutting bus and train service or leading to fare hikes. Federal operating assistance would have alleviated some of this problem.
In our own region, the RTA will soon confront an operating short fall. At recent RTA board meetings, the staff has reported that multiple bus lines have ridership that justify more frequent service, but that there is not enough money to operate that service.
Also notable is that the new bill offers tax credits that favor automobile drivers over transit riders. Since 2009, both transit riders and drivers could take a $230 monthly tax credit for commuting expenses. Now transit riders can only take $125 while drivers get to keep $240.
Overall, the bill keeps transportation-spending levels roughly the same as they have been for years – even as the federal transportation grant programs (like TIGER) are consistently oversubscribed and our infrastructure continues to deteriorate. This situation underscores the need for states and cities to create their own sources of transportation funding.
One bright spot for the residents of Louisiana is that two of our representatives, Sen. Landrieu and Rep. Richmond, supported the ultimately unsuccessful Senate bill.
In the end, it was a big bill (which also contained provisions unrelated to transportation, such as a measure that will direct 80% of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill fines towards coastal restoration), and everyone is still trying to understand its implications. Also, the bill only lasts till the fall of 2014 (in the past, transportation bills have had a six-year lifespan), so that means negotiations for a new transportation bill will begin soon.
Just a few months ago, the outlook for our Mississippi River bridge and ferries looked bleak. In February, a legislatively created citizen task force told of dire cutbacks to the operations and maintenance of the bridge and the potential elimination of the three ferries if the Crescent City Connection tolls were not renewed. But the task force report received little to no media coverage and it appeared that the decision had all but been made to allow the tolls expire.
Unwilling to accept that fate, Transport for NOLA partnered with others who believe in common sense financing for our critical transportation infrastructure. We petitioned, we pushed for fair and balanced media coverage, we raised public awareness, we demonstrated and we spoke up at critical legislative meetings. We’re thrilled to report that our efforts have paid off.
On Sunday, both the House and Senate voted for HB 1212, a bill that will put the toll extension out to a general election. Assuming that Governor Jindal does not veto the bill, voters from Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines Parishes will now have the opportunity to weigh in during the November election. As people learn more about what’s at stake, support for maintaining the tolls continues to grow.
HB 1212 is not the ideal bill. Most notably, even if voters do approve a toll extension, the legislation prohibits toll revenue from going to the ferries. Fortunately, our legislators also passed SB 599, a bill that will direct $4 million in toll surplus revenue to purchase new ferries for privatized service; other efforts are in the works allocate $5 million annually as a subsidy for this service.
So now the hard work of educating the voters must begin. The facts are the same – without the tolls, we will be dependent on the State to allocate scarce transportation funds through what has become a highly politicized decision-making process; with the tolls, we can provide a dedicated and sustainable funding source to ensure that the Crescent City Connection stays in good repair for years to come. Transport for NOLA will continue to provide you with up to date coverage and ways to get involved. In the meantime, we ask that you start talking to your friends and neighbors about what’s at stake.
The Crescent City Connection is the most heavily traveled bridge on the lower Mississippi River. Right now, there’s a toll in place – the money raised by the toll provides a sustainable funding source to operate and maintain the bridge in addition to three ferries (Canal – Algiers, Canal – Gretna, Chalmette – Lower Algiers). The ferries provide the only direct river crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists in the region.
A fierce debate is underway about the future of the bridge and ferries – at the heart of which lies the toll that provides more than three-quarters of the funding for the bridge and ferries’ operations and maintenance. Politics and tax philosophies have largely driven the volatile debate while considerations for protecting critical transportation infrastructure and moving motorists, transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians across the Mississippi River have been sidelined.
The toll is set to expire at the end of the year. If the State Legislature does not take action to reauthorize the toll during the current legislation, the consequences would be severe. Transport for NOLA supports smart tolls to sustain the operations and maintenance of our critical Mississippi River crossings - here’s why.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
The fate of the tolls and ferries is in the hands of our State Senators and Representatives. We need one of them to champion a bill during the current legislative session and to build support to get the tolls reauthorized. There are two easy ways you can help:
- Sign our online petition. And ask your friends and family to sign too.
- Email AND call your State Representative and Senator. Look up who they are with this handy search tool. Get their email and phone number from their website. Transport for NOLA put together this form letter and these talking points that you can use. Be sure to include / say your address so they know you live in their district!
FOR MORE INFO:
Want to learn more? We recommend the following reading:
- Task Force on the Crescent City Connection Report
- NOLA Tolls Blog - written by the President of Friends of the Ferry
- Impacts of Loss of Toll Revenue prepared by Algiers Point Association President Skip Gallagher
- 4/9/12 Letter to the Editor in Times-Picayune re: reduction in policing
WHO SUPPORTS THE TOLL:
- New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu
- Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris
- New Orleans City Councilwoman-at-large Jackie Clarkson
- New Orleans District C City Councilwoman City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer
- New Orleans Chamber of Commerce
- Jefferson Business Council
- Greater New Orleans, Inc.
- Transport for NOLA
- Harvey Canal Industrial Association
- Jefferson Chamber of Commerce
- Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council
- Algiers Economic Development Foundation
- Plaquemines Association of Business and Industry
- St. Bernard Chamber of Commerce
- Algiers Point Association
- Crescent City Connection Oversight Authority
- Friends of the Ferry
Thanks to your enthusiastic outpouring of support, Transport for NOLA was able to strengthen the RTA’s application for TIGER IV funding to extend the St. Claude streetcar to Poland Ave. Our online petition gathering 2,316 signatures blowing our initial goal of 1,000 signatures out of the water! And with our good friends and partners over at Neighborland, we took the campaign to St. Claude Avenue with a mobile billboard that read, “I want the streetcar to go to Poland Avenue!”. More than 3,000 matching stickers were given out and you all turned out in force for our streetcar rally with Councilmember Kristin Gisleson-Palmer.
TIGER IV is a competitive grant and over 500 applications are expected making it important for us to continue to demonstrate support for the St. Claude streetcar. You can help by writing letters and making calls to the US Secretary of Transportation and your U.S. Senators and Representatives – their contact information is below:
- Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation , (202) 366-4000 or E-mail
- Mary Landrieu, Senator, (202) 224-5824 or Web Form
- David Vitter, Senator, (202) 224-4623 or Web Form
- Jeff Landry, Representative (Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) (202) 225-4031 or E-mail
- Steve Scalise, Representative, (202) 225-3015 or Web Form
- Cedric Richmond, Representative, (202) 225-6636 or Web Form
Transport for NOLA is accelerating its work in 2012. In fact, we are moving so fast we can’t wait for the new year—we need your support starting now.
Today we are launching our first official petition of the Regional Transit Authority. The RTA has installed GPS transmitters on all streetcars, buses, and new stop signs but don’t release the data to the public.
We want the publicly-funded public transportation agency to make its data open to the public.
People in cities across America have successfully lobbied transit agencies to open their data. With open data, citizens can develop creative ways to make public transportation more predictable, dependable and easier to use–San Francisco’s BART has over 30 different apps that track the system.
The RTA needs to release their data to the public so New Orleanians can have the same opportunity. Sign our petition at change.org and share it with your family, friends and colleagues. Open data facilitates better transit service, which in turn facilitates a more prosperous New Orleans.
Learn more about how this petition got started at Neighborland, and learn more about open transit data in the video below: