The Last Bus to New Orleans
LA Swift got its start after Hurricane Katrina, shuttling evacuees and recovery workers between the Crescent and Capitol cities.
Ridership spiked after the storm, dropped off, and is now steadily growing. But the riders are commuters, using the bus to get to work.
The bus ran out of funding in June, but the service provider agreed to keep rolling another month. Long-time rider MiLisa York, who’s started a petition to keep the bus going long-term.
Every weekday afternoon, York boards the 1 p.m. bus back to Baton Rouge from the stop outside the legal office where she works on Poydras.
York calls the riders she’s gotten to know over the six years she’s commuted on LA Swift her “bus family.”
“There are people on the bus that are veterans, because there is no VA hospital in Baton Rouge," York said. "I know there are students on the bus that go to school down here, and you still have people that dealing with hurricane restoration.”
Over 200 people ride the bus every day to get to work. York herself is a paralegal, making $10,000 more in New Orleans than she would in Baton Rouge.
Including those who ride the bus only occasionally, the number of monthly rides is usually between 10,000 and 12,000.
When York leaves Baton Rouge from the Home Depot on Highland in the morning, it’s crowded.
“It’s tighter than ten toes in one sock,” York said.
Those riders may soon be without a way to get where they’re going, unless the state Department of Transportation and Development can come up with $750,000.
Jodi Conachen is a spokesperson for DOTD. She says DOTD funnels $2.3 million to Hotard Coaches every year from the federal government.
“It costs between $3,500 and $4,000 per person, if you look at it annually,” Conachen said.
The bus has been funded with hurricane recovery dollars – but it no longer qualifies for that kind of funding. It does meet the criteria for a federal grant for a commuter line, but the state would have to put up a third of the cost.
Riders also pay to ride the bus – $5 for each leg of the trip.
If LA Swift doesn’t find funding, riders could take Greyhound Coaches. It also has daily trips to and from New Orleans. But some riders are unwilling to pay for a roundtrip – upwards of $30 – everyday.
York says she is willing to pay as much as $20 to keep LA Swift around. That's still cheaper than parking in the Central Business District, the ware on her vehicle, and gas.
But federal regulations prohibit the use of fares as part of the state’s contribution for the grant.
Money won’t come from the state’s coffers either. The legislative session just ended, and LA Swift didn’t come up.
York thinks the localities should be responsible for the price tag. After all, she says, it’s local economies that benefit.
“It’s really turned into a needed, viable, working mass transit system between our two cities," York said.
Local groups advocating for the bus service agree that the service improves connectivity. Adam Knapp is with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. Knapp admits that the 200 daily riders probably don’t have a huge economic impact. But he says there’s an inherent value in simply having a bus that goes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
“It’s the existence of it that’s the important feature," Knapp pointed out. "There’s not another commuter service that connects our two markets.”
So Knapp’s group and others are looking into some creative accounting to keep LA Swift around.
For example, Home Depot could start charging LA Swift for the parking spots commuters leave their vehicles in when they take the bus.
“If it’s not being paid for," Knapp said, "that’s being donated by somebody.”
Knapp said if they could donate that value to LA Swift, the federal government could consider that value as part of the state’s match, but no money would ever exchange hands.
When York gets off the bus in Baton Rouge, she’s got other things on her mind – her long weekend.
“I'm looking forward to having four days off at home with my grandchildren. They'll wait on me hand and foot."
If the bus to New Orleans falls by the wayside, she’ll have to find a way to share the car her daughter also uses to get around.