LA Swift deal near fruition

Advocates working to save the LA Swift connecting New Orleans to Baton Rouge say they are closing in on a deal that will continue the bus service for at least a year.

The bus service is largely funded by a $2.3 million grant from the Federal Transportation Authority, but the federal funds hinge on a $750,000 local match.

In June, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development announced it would no longer subsidize the local match, sending regional advocates scurrying to try to find replacement funds to continue the service.

Local groups, led by the Center for Planning Excellence, Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc., have since found a creative solution to providing the local match, and many of them did so without spending any money.

Callen Hotard, chief executive officer of Hotard Coaches, which provides the $5 bus rides, said the required local match is being met by cobbling together several in-kind donations from various groups and companies.

Hotard said his company made a $125,000 cash contribution and reduced the price of its contract.

The Capital Area Transit System provided an in-kind donation of $56,000 by cutting Hotard’s lease agreement nearly in half. CATS is the launching point for the LA Swift in Baton Rouge and was previously charging Hotard $111,000 a year for parking spaces, said CATS board member Marston Fowler, who represented CATS in the negotiations.

The city of Kenner and a Baton Rouge Home Depot, located on Highland Road, also provided in-kind donations by donating parking spaces used as bus stops.

The stops were not previously being charged for, but the value of the parking spots was quantified for an in-kind value.

GNO Inc. and BRAC said they have been organizing other in-kind donations to contribute to the local match.

“Everything from marketing and promotions to I.T. to other needs that would help fill the gap to meet the match for getting federal funding,” said Phillip Lafargue, a BRAC spokesman, adding that the funding has not yet been approved.

Center for Planning Excellence officials declined comment because the funds have not yet been approved by the FTA.

“With our newfound spirit of super regional cooperation, it was critical that we keep the region literally connected,” said Michael Hecht, CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc.

“To us the LA Swift is the super region express,” Hecht said, “and we felt that it was important to keep it working now, not as a vehicle for Katrina refugees, but as a vehicle for New Orleans and Baton Rouge commuters.”

LA Swift was created as a temporary option for residents who were displaced or affected by Hurricane Katrina to travel between the Crescent City and the capital city.

The service began on Oct. 31, 2005.

It was previously run with a Federal Transit Association grant and revenue generated by the $5 passenger charge per one-way trip. Approximately 200 riders utilize the service daily.

Hotard said he expects the FTA to approve the in-kind donations as the local match because it’s allowed in FTA guidelines and is a practice used in other states. But he said the FTA also requires a subgrantee, in the form of a government, nonprofit or person, to manage the program and federal funds.

The state previously managed the program, but is abdicating its management role.

“We do not have a subgrantee in place at this time so the service is still in jeopardy at this time,” Hotard said.

He said three public entities are being considered to oversee the program and funds but time is rapidly running out.

The service was supposed to end June 30, but was extended until July 31 by the state to give local entities an opportunity to take it over.

“Timing is critical now,” Hotard said. “We have a lot of people spending a lot of time working toward a resolution. We’ve made progress, we’re just not yet there.”

Editor’s note: This story was modified on July 18, 2013. The original story erroneously indicated the state had provided funds for the LA Swift program. In fact, the service had relied on federal funds and rider fares, only. The Advocate regrets the error.