N.O.-BR bus service in peril

Wearing two knee braces and a black cap marking him as a Vietnam veteran, Robert Waldon used his cane to climb into the coach that would carry him to Baton Rouge.

On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, Waldon was boarding the LA Swift bus near Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans.

“I use it two or three times per week,” Waldon said of LA Swift. “I have to come to the VA hospital here.”

Waldon, who lives in St. Francisville, has been using the service “since it started, mostly,” after Hurricane Katrina.

But the service he relies on is set to end July 31 because its federal funding has been cut, and Waldon was angry.

“What happened to the money?” he asked. “You got a bus load of people, you making money.”

Earlier that morning, law student Ben McDonald boarded an LA Swift Bus near Highland Road and Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge.

McDonald was on his way to his summer job at a New Orleans law firm. Wednesday was the third time he’d ridden the LA Swift bus, and he praised the economy of the service, which cost $5 for a one-way trip.

“It’s a lot cheaper than gas,” he said. “I love it.”

A couple of rows in front of McDonald, Deniecee Ward listened to music. Ward, who is from New Orleans, moved to Baton Rouge after Katrina and rides LA Swift regularly to visit family and see her doctor.

Wednesday morning, she got on the 6:30 a.m. departure from the Capital Area Transit System terminal in Baton Rouge to make it to a 9 a.m. doctor’s appointment.

Waldon, McDonald and Ward are three of about 10,000 riders per month who ride LA Swift and would be affected by its loss.

On June 7, state officials announced the service would end June 30. The resulting outcry from riders and other groups prompted the state Department of Transportation and Development to extend LA Swift by one month to allow “local entities” to try to come up with the approximately $750,000 needed each year to keep the service going.

About a dozen riders interviewed this week said they hope the service will continue beyond July 31.

Without LA Swift, Ward said she wouldn’t have a way to get to New Orleans. “I guess I would take Greyhound, that’s the only other thing.”

Greyhound’s fare between Baton Rouge and New Orleans ranges from $15 to $34, according to its website.

MiLisa York, who catches the bus at Highland Road and Interstate 10 to reach her job in the Central Business District, started a Facebook page and a Change.org petition to encourage the state to keep running the LA Swift service.

As of Thursday, her petition had garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

York and the other riders of the LA Swift buses have some allies working on their behalf.

A coalition of groups, including Center for Planning Excellence, Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, are working on ways to close the budgeting shortfall.

CPEX, along with the Greater New Orleans Foundation, RIDE New Orleans and the AARP surveyed more than 300 LA Swift Riders in April.

The survey showed that more than half the riders use the bus to get to work, and 32 percent of them do not have a car.

Nearly three-quarters of them come from households with less than $40,000 in yearly income, the survey showed.

State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, is working with DOTD officials to continue the service, which he called a critical connection between the two cities.

“We are optimistic that we are getting to a place where we can save the service,” he said. “There may be adjustments in the times and routes.”

Others urged caution.

“A lot is left to be determined,” said Rachel DiResto, of the Center for Planning Excellence. “There are a lot of other factors.”

Any support they are able to raise — through funding, in-kind donations or other mechanisms must get federal approval, DiResto said.

DiResto and Leger said they had been pleased by the amount of local support. Kenner may be able to provide some in-kind services in terms of parking and bus storage, Leger said. The New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the service.

Almost every rider interviewed said a fare increase would not deter them from riding the service.

But federal regulations do not allow fares to be increased as a way to provided the local match funds needed. Leger said he did not expect the fares to go up significantly.

“There is discussion of that,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect a significant change in fares.”

But with the July 31 deadline looming, getting the necessary funds in place and approved by federal authorities is a tall task.

“We are all very committed to making sure there is no interruption in service,” Leger said. “We don’t want to see that.”

Robin Morris, set to board LA Swift outside the New Orleans Public Library on Wednesday afternoon with her son Tyrance, said if the service stopped, she would stop coming to New Orleans.

“I ain’t paying Greyhound, or for gas, it’s too expensive,” she said. “I hope it keeps rolling.”