BY SKIP DESCANT
Advocate business writer
August 11, 2012
After more than six years in operation, the LA Swift bus is experiencing an increase in ridership as its passengers vary in types from work commuters to day-trippers.
The Baton Rouge to New Orleans bus service began in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina as a low-cost public transit option for New Orleans residents who had relocated to Baton Rouge. LA Swift offers multiple trips a day at only $5 each way.
In the last three years, ridership with LA Swift has increased roughly 38 percent, according to the Louisiana Department of Transportation, the agency in charge of managing the service. LA Swift accommodated more 37,000 passenger trips in the second quarter of this year. This compares to 26,847 passenger trips in the second quarter of 2009. Ridership on LA Swift peaked during the fourth quarter in 2006, with 63,484 passenger trips, according the Department of Transportation.
The cheap cost is what most riders cite as what they like most about riding Swift, a joint venture between the state and Hotard Coaches.
“I hope they don’t go up on the price,” said Shelton Watson, 41, a construction worker in Baton Rouge, who was taking the Swift bus down to New Orleans one recent morning.
“It would cost me about $50 if I had to take the Greyhound.”
Greyhound Lines Inc. also operates bus service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, though those trips cost about $21 each way. Swift buses also come with amenities like free Wi-Fi and televisions.
Watson went on to say he sometimes uses the Swift bus during the week, but mostly on weekends to visit family in New Orleans.
“Peak travel times tend to be the midday services during the week, but the last trip Friday from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is also heavy,” said Amber Leach, a public information officer with the Louisiana Department of Transportation.
Brett Jackson, 24, a first-year law student in Baton Rouge, rides the Swift bus daily to get to his internship at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
“I have a car,” Jackson said one morning after dozing during his commute.
“But I like taking this a lot more. It’s easier, and I don’t have to drive, and it’s cheaper. It’s already $10 to park in New Orleans,” said Jackson as he fingered his Droid RAZR. Jackson’s office is the state Supreme Court building on Royal Street in the French Quarter, just blocks away from the Swift bus’ downtown stop at Tulane and Loyola avenues.
Bill Lambert, a 56-year-old school teacher at a charter school in New Orleans, plans to use the Swift bus daily to commute into New Orleans from his south Baton Rouge home.
“If I can do this I will,” Lambert, a former resident of the Bay Area in California, said while on the bus home recently after a meeting at his new school. “It sounds like the schedule will work.”
He plans to use the 90-minute commute to grade papers and do other “teacher stuff.”
Swift’s cheap fares are made possible by a federal transportation grant, which covers 78 percent of the bus service’s $2.3 million annual operating costs, say state transportation officials. There are no plans to alter the prices or the routes, noted Lauren Lee, a DOTD public information officer.
When officials talk of regional public transit options for Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the conversation generally drifts toward the hopeful and wide-eyed idea of a rail link between the two cities. Studies examining the possibility have already outlined some of the requirements and costs. And what’s regarded as nearly essential for the idea to really work is a stop at the New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, providing a seamless connection from the airport to Baton Rouge. This is not a link already served by bus providers. The Swift bus does not have an airport stop, and Greyhound no longer makes the stop, according to customer service representatives.
DOTD officials say an airport stop is not feasible for the LA Swift line.
“While it may appear to be a natural fit, it is not for several reasons,” said Leach, noting the bus would have to leave Baton Rouge too early in the morning to get passengers to the New Orleans airport in time for morning flight check-ins. Also, there’s “a very narrow window of demand in the morning,” Leach added.
LA Swift also wants to avoid directly competing against other transportation services like rental cars, Leach said.
“To pull into the airport presents several problems concerning a safe loading space, competition with existing systems, loss of revenue for the airport in parking fees and the rental car business,” she explained. And a stop at the New Orleans airport would add 20 minutes to the trip into the city, “which we found is unacceptable to our core passengers,” Leach said. “The numbers one might expect are simply not there to justify at this time.”
LA Swift does have two early morning stops at 2828 Loyola Drive in Kenner, which is near the Sleep Inn airport hotel and a short drive to the terminal. The bus makes the stop at 5:47 a.m. and 6:24 a.m., Monday through Friday. For the afternoon trips back to Baton Rouge, Swift stops at the Loyola Drive location at 5:14 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. There are no stops on weekends.
Many of Swift’s riders are not looking for an airport shuttle, but a convenient and affordable way to see friends and family in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Shelia Watson, 58, lives in Baker and recently used the Swift to get to New Orleans to attend to a sister recuperating from surgery.
“I will be taking it every day until she gets stable,” Watson said, adding the trip would be costly via Greyhound. “Right now, the bus service is my transportation.”