A big blind spot in the state Department of Transportation and Development: Transit is not transportation.
That is only one of the lessons in the failure of DOTD to capture federal funds for the LA Swift commuter buses between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The federal government is now requiring an annual match of $750,000 in local or state funds for the buses, begun to alleviate a housing crisis in the New Orleans region after the 2005 hurricanes and flooding. DOTD, which spends hundreds of millions on highway building and little on public transportation, says it won’t come up with the money, or even part of it, even to bring federal dollars to Louisiana.
In one of the gaps of understanding at DOTD, the affordable housing crisis is very much an issue. Laborers or hotel workers with families still can’t find affordable apartments in New Orleans today, and many must live in the Baton Rouge area because of the shortages down the river. That is one of the reasons that the business community in both cities back LA Swift. The New Orleans City Council urged DOTD to use its transportation dollars to pay the matching funds.
If there is one thing that the state and DOTD ought to be promoting, it is the regional ties between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
LA Swift was scheduled to expire June 30, but got a reprieve for a month. The federal government will accept some in-kind services, so the total price tag may not be $750,000. But what if it is? That’s still drawing down several times the match cost in federal funds for the buses, hired from a private contractor. The Louisiana Workforce Commission, in the interests of working class families as well as employers, also ought to be scrambling to make a match happen.
Unfortunately, this is not the only way in which something innovative — at least in Louisiana — is spurned by state government’s 1950s mentality toward transportation.
In 2009, the state failed to apply for a federal stimulus grant to begin commuter rail services between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. That decision was rightly criticized by the business leadership of both cities. Seemingly, the mission of DOTD is to use state dollars to draw down federal highway funds, but ignore other opportunities in the same realm.
We hope that LA Swift continues and that the state embraces every way to provide transportation choices for the public.