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‘That’s where the nightmare started’: Long bus delays frustrate RTA riders

Riders wait for the bus on Jan. 19, 2023, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The public transportation system has become less frequent and dependable since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Rashah McChesney
Gulf States Newsroom
Riders wait for the bus on Jan. 19, 2023, in New Orleans. The public transportation system has become less frequent and dependable since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This story was originally published by Verite News.

Shirley Smith, 67, boarded the number 84 bus at the corner of N. Miro Street and Ursulines Avenue, near the independent senior living facility where she lives in New Orleans, and headed downtown for a doctor's appointment.

It was still morning, but the temperature that mid-August day had already exceeded 90 degrees and would reach 100 degrees at its peak, according to the National Weather Service.

Smith often catches a ride with a family member or calls a car service. But she wasn’t going far, so in spite of the heat, she decided to take the bus back home, with a stop at the pharmacy to pick up her medication.

“That’s where the nightmare started,” Smith said.

The trip involved several transfers, but the buses along the route were supposed to run every 17 to 33 minutes. If she didn’t have to wait too long at the pharmacy, she figured she’d be home in about an hour and a half. But the trip ended up taking about three hours, including more than two hours waiting in the blistering sun for delayed buses.

Smith said she was so exhausted after her trip that when she got to her apartment, she plopped down into a chair and couldn’t move.

“The next day is when it took its toll on me,” she said. “I slept all day … it had literally drained me. I had no strength,” she said.

Transit advocates say Smith’s story is not unusual due to the current state of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority bus fleet. Aging buses are breaking down more often and being pulled off the street for repairs, causing major headaches for the approximately 30,000 people who rely on the RTA every day to get around.

“The underlying issue right now is that the RTA does not have enough working buses to run the amount of service it is trying to run,” Sam Buckley, policy director of nonprofit transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans, said.

Smaller fleet, aging buses

According to data presented in an RTA board committee meeting meeting last month, the RTA requires 87 buses on the road during peak service in order to meet its current schedule. Previously the number was 97, but that was revised downward after schedule changes implemented in June.

The agency’s full fleet is quite a bit larger than that, at 140, according to RTA officials. But on a typical day, many are off the road for repairs or routine maintenance.

In August, the daily average number of buses actually available for service dipped below the required number — to 84. In July, the most recent month for which performance data is available, the RTA’s systemwide on-time performance rate was 76% . The Lakeview route performed best that month, with an on-time rate of 89.9%. The Hayne Boulevard Loop in New Orleans East performed the worst, at of 50.5%.

On its worst day the agency had only 78 buses available. At its best, it had 89, one shy of what the agency says is the ideal number — 90 buses — to accommodate.

In an interview last month, RTA CEO Lona Edwards Hankins acknowledged that the transit agency is facing a number of challenges in providing reliable service to its bus riders.

The fleet size is down by more than 50 percent from its pre-Katrina number, when it was about 370 strong, according to media reports from the time. Much of that fleet — about 200 buses — was destroyed in the citywide flooding that followed the 2005 storm, The Times-Picayune reported in 2009, and the remaining buses were aging out of usefulness.

After receiving funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and settling with its insurance company, the RTA purchased 137 new buses between 2008 and 2012, officials told Verite.

But Hankins, who was named CEO in March, said there wasn’t a long-term purchasing plan in place.

The agency’s full bus fleet is 140 strong, according to RTA officials. But on a typical day, many are off the road for repairs or routine maintenance. “You're supposed to be buying fleet periodically such that you're not trying to make a purchase of 40 vehicles all in one year, particularly for an agency our size,” Hankins said. “You almost wanna be buying 10 to 20 vehicles at a time because financially that's what you can manage to spread it out so that you have kind of an even fleet replacement schedule.”

But that wasn’t happening, Hankins said. RTA didn’t make any more purchases until 2019. And as a result, more than 60% of the RTA’s buses are near or at the end of their useful lives, agency officials told RTA board members at a recent meeting. The agency permanently retired four buses this spring and summer and at any given time, 35 to 40 percent of the fleet is out of service for mechanical reasons.

Hankins said the older buses are in constant need of repair, as a bus’ life span is typically 12 years old, and some have to be permanently retired. Currently there are 57 buses in RTA’s fleet of 140 that are 12 years or older; 28 of them are currently on the road.

Quickly repairing buses and getting them into service is difficult, Hankins said, due to what she said is a nationwide shortage of diesel mechanics as fewer workers are entering the field. Hankins said the agency is regularly short between six and eight in-house mechanics. Plus as buses age, parts for the older vehicles have become harder to find, and there’s a backlog on orders for new hybrid electric buses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hankins said.

On the day Hankins spoke with Verite News, the RTA CEO said roughly six buses that went out as scheduled had to be returned to the station because of mechanical issues. Three of them were repaired and sent back out within the hour, but pulling the buses off of their routes for any amount of time can cause delays.

Hankins said the agency has ordered 21 new buses and received confirmation from the manufacturer that assembly will start in March. In a September RTA board of commissioners meeting, Hankins said those buses would be delivered as early as June. However, during the interview with Verite, which occurred several days prior to the board meeting, she said she could not commit to a timeline.

“I'm grateful that we’ve been moved to March, but until they roll in my yard, I can’t really get excited about it because anything can happen at a manufacturer’s site,” Hankins said.

In the meantime, Hankins said the agency has brought on temporary, out-of-town mechanics on a contract. And when the city started seeing excessive heat warnings in late June, route supervisors were given water bottles to offer to operators and riders, she said.

Communication delays

Ride New Orleans executive director Courtney Jackson said she understands that the agency is in a difficult situation in regard to equipment and maintenance. But she thinks the RTA could do more to inform riders about delays.

“We understand they're in a very precarious position,” Jackson said. “We're asking them to do better as it relates to how they're engaging with their transit riders.”

RTA launched a new app called Le Pass in August 2022. The app uses GPS technology to track buses. While it does include information about route delays, Ride says the updates don't appear quickly enough, leaving riders waiting at stops with no idea when to expect to get picked up or whether they should change their transportation plans.

“What we're frustrated by is that we don't have real information from the RTA on how the service issues are affecting different parts of the system,” Buckley said.

Buckley said riders are reporting to Ride that sometimes the Le Pass app will sometimes show a bus’ location where there is no bus and sometimes a bus will be running and won’t show up on the app.

And when a bus breakdown causes a delay, the app only tells users there are “significant delays,” but it doesn’t offer added information about a vehicle being taken off its line.

Jackson said other public transportation systems, like New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, are doing better in this regard.

Hankins said she’s trying to work on getting more accurate information out to the public, but it’s hard to know how long a delay might take.

“What I have gleaned from my peers across the country is they will say there is an incident on this line [or] police activity on this line, but they can't describe how long the delay will be. Whereas our app just says there's a delay. And so how do we … give riders better information?” Hankins asked. “That is something I’m challenging our team to try to figure out.”

Many RTA users are older and may not be accustomed to new technology. On Tuesday, Sept. 26, Harry Johnson, Jr., 62, waited on Broad Street for the number 9 bus to head home to the Little Woods neighborhood in East New Orleans. Johnson uses a flip phone, so he can’t access the app. He said the alternative — the agency’s hotline — isn’t much help.

“I call them sometimes,” Johnson said. “They’ll tell me, ‘Oh it’ll be there in five minutes or it’ll be there in two minutes.’ No, it don't always be on time.”

At the commissioners meeting last month, Jackson told the board that the RTA could do a lot just by providing more frequent updates to users through the hotline and its apps.

“You guys have a lot of amazing projects coming down the pipeline, you really need these riders to back you up,” Jackson said. “Riders don't need to know how the sausage is made. They just need to know when their bus is coming,”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the RTA used grant money from the 2021 infrastructure bill to purchase 21 new buses. The funding for the purchase did not come from an infrastructure bill grant, according to agency officials. The error has been corrected.

Before joining Verite News, Bobbi-Jeanne Misick reported on people behind bars in immigration detention centers and prisons in the Gulf South as a senior reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She was also a 2021-2022 Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center. Her project for that fellowship on the experiences of Cameroonians detained in Louisiana and Mississippi was recognized as a finalist in the small radio category of the 2022 IRE Awards.