Why Transit Agencies Expand Even When They Struggle to Provide Service

This map shows transit routes in New Orleans that run less frequently than once every 30 miles at peak hour in red. Routes that run at 15-minute frequencies or less. Image: Ride New Orleans via Transport Politic
Frequent transit in New Orleans is scarce: The transit routes in red run less frequently than once every 30 minutes at peak hour, while only the routes in green run at least every 15 minutes. Image: Ride New Orleans via Transport Politic

New Orleans transit is in bad shape, as we reported recently. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority has never recovered from Hurricane Katrina and service is at about 36 percent of pre-storm levels despite the region’s population rebound.

New Orleans’ frequent service lines have been slashed dramatically. Even newly built streetcar lines are running infrequently.

So why is New Orleans planning a major expansion that would dramatically expand the streetcar system, as well as add light rail and bus rapid transit? As Yonah Freemark recently pointed out at the Transport Politic, despite its inability to deliver frequent along its existing routes, NORTA plans to pour $3.5 billion into construction.

This case, Freemark explains, illustrates problematic incentives embedded in federal policy. Namely, the federal government makes money available for expansion projects but not for day-to-day service:

Because transit support from Washington, D.C. explicitly prevents spending on operations for most cities, it would be a mistake for New Orleans to pass up on the funds available for new construction.

Indeed, from a budgetary perspective, there is nothing about plans for new transit expansions that either prevent better operations or encourage it; operations and capital budgets might as well be coming from different agencies altogether.

This does not serve transit riders well, Freemark says. Current transit users in New Orleans have substandard service, and new lines could very well suffer the same fate.

Freemark says perhaps the federal government should require some type of guarantee from transit agencies considering expansions that the service would be adequate to warrant the initial investment. Or perhaps greater flexibility — letting federal funds be spent on operations as well as capital expenses in poorer regions, like New Orleans, for instance — would help produce better, more equitable outcomes.

  • Joe Linton

    So sometimes that “expand” doesn’t really mean “expand” (at least not “expand overall transit service.”) Sometimes in Los Angeles our Metro’s rhetoric is of an “expanding system” but the result is an overall reduction in service (generally this was similar to the New Orleans example cited – when L.A. Metro plunged excessive funding into new construction, to the detriment of its existing services.)

  • davistrain

    I call this effect the “Golden Spike Syndrome”. We have a line open with ribbon cutting, spike driving, and speeches by local politicians and celebrities. The line goes into service and everything is fine for a while, then things start to wear out. Maybe places where corners were cut during construction start to become obvious. But the people who repair and maintain don’t get the same respect that builders do. The very term “maintenance man” conjures up an image of a guy in greasy coveralls with a battered tool kit, trying his best to keep the system running, even though the powers that be refuse to buy the spare parts he needs to make proper repairs.

  • Excellent article and completely true. As it seems to be federal policy to do nothing to help actual Amerikans but does everything to help big box construction contractors and faceless government technocrats

  • Milneburg

    The system was becoming worthless BEFORE “Katrina”, more properly called BARTHELEMY’S FLOOD. Our “beloved” criminal mayor “Slimy Sidney” Barthelemy deliberately wrecked RTA, destroying the efficient organization inherited from New Orleans Public Service Inc. He purged most of the experienced employees, replacing them with worthless political hacks, who caused more than one near disaster by their criminal negligence. One of the few that got ANY coverage from our Joseph Goebbels news media happened on July 31, 1991 when a crowded streetcar caught fire from a defective controller(“rebuilt” by a political hack contractor). Of course the equally corrupt USDOT(to which it was reported in detail by a private citizen) swept the whole thing under the rug.
    Of course the sole purpose of the construction project is to provide pork and graft for politicians and their buddies.They could care less if the whole system collapses once they get THEIR loot out of it.

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