The demise of the LA Swift bus service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans will not come as quickly as first thought and may not happen.
State transportation officials announced Thursday that the service that runs seven days a week would be extended for one month to July 31. It was slated to end June 30, when 100 percent federal funding ends.
Also Thursday, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing its support for LA Swift and urging Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development officials to find funding to continue the service.
The extension will “allow local entities the opportunity to formalize a plan for their takeover” of the service, said DOTD spokeswoman Lauren Lee. The extension will be paid for under-run funds allocated to LA Swift.
Lee referred further questions about the “local entities” to Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
Knapp said BRAC has been working closely with Greater New Orleans Inc. and other organizations on finding a way to maintain the service.
“We view this transit connector between the two regions as a symbolic connection,” Knapp said. “We have been working on trying to find a way to see local resources gathered that can help close the gap that the state has told us.”
Local entities are exploring options to provide the approximate $750,000 per year in local funds to match a decreased federal fund contribution.
“We are not there yet,” Knapp said. “We have gotten a 30-day extension that buys us a little bit more time.”
If the funds are located, Knapp said, then state and federal authorities would have to approve it.
LA Swift was created as a temporary option for affected residents to travel between the Crescent City and the capital city as they recovered from Hurricane Katrina. The service began on Oct. 31, 2005. It was previously run with a Federal Transit Association grant and a $5 passenger charge per one-way trip. Approximately 200 riders utilize the service daily.
On Tuesday, Capital Area Transit System Board President Isaiah Marshall said his agency was in discussions about prolonging the service.
“How can we assist to keep the service?” he said. “Is there anything we can do?”
LA Swift uses the CATS terminal on Florida Street for departures and arrivals.
Riders interviewed Thursday said they would be comfortable with a fare increase.
“If they have to go up $2, it’s fine with us as long as we have our transportation,” said Sonia Bruno, who rides every day from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, where she works in a hotel. “We really depend on our buses.”
Milisa York, who lives in St. Gabriel, catches the bus every morning at Highland Road and Interstate 10. She arrives in the New Orleans Central Business District, where she works at a law firm.
“I have no problem with them increasing the rates,” she said. “I would pay $20 round trip.”
While an increase in fares would offset the operating cost, FTA regulations do not allow those revenues to be applied toward the required local match, DOTD officials said. Consequently, regardless of any reasonable fare increase, local funds would still be required.
Knapp said the groups trying to find the funds to keep the service are looking at all aspects, but especially attempting to identify partners who could provide services at low- or no-cost to LA Swift.
“We have been looking for outside partners that would donate services as an in-kind donation,” he said. “There are services that have been paid for in the contract that we are hoping to to get donated.”
That money could then be cut out of the contract, Knapp said.
DOTD contracts with Hotard Coaches to provide the service.
Knapp said marketing, advertising, communications and IT are among the services needed.
“We have been putting out feelers to who might be willing to offer that,” he said.
Knapp said the goal was to remove state funding from LA Swift altogether.
“What we ultimately believe is that the state shouldn’t be contributing money to do this,” he said. “With 150,000 riders per year, this is something that’s valuable.”
To rally people behind the bus service, York started a Facebook page and a petition on Change.org.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Facebook page had 76 likes and 840 people had affixed a digital signature to the petition.
York said the service has grown beyond the original intent to assist displaced residents.
“It really became vital, though,” York said. “We need a reliable, affordable transportation service between the two cities.”
People ride for events like Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and Bayou Country Superfest.
“It’s bringing in dollars to those cities,” she said. “I don’t understand what the issue is.”
York, her husband and daughter share one car.
“When LA Swift stops, how am I going to get to New Orleans?” she asked.
Several organizations, including the Center for Planning Excellence or CPEX, The Greater New Orleans Foundation, RIDE New Orleans and the AARP, recently surveyed 304 LA Swift riders and found that more than half use the service to get to work.
Of those surveyed, 44 percent use the bus to visit family and friends and 32 percent do not have a car.
Bruno welcomed the news of the one-month extension, but said the fight to make the service permanent is not over.
“We are not giving up,” she said. “So many people depend on that. We just hope and pray it will continue.”
Advocate staff writer Jaquetta White contributed to this report.
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