The Regional Transit Authority gets people moving around New Orleans. Our transit services bring hard-working commuters to their jobs, students to their schools, and fun-seekers to entertainment, shopping areas, and restaurants. We provide mobility to residents of the city as well as to large numbers of tourists, taking them to and from their hotels to historical neighborhoods and countless attractions. In fact, many visitors (and locals) ride the RTA’s iconic streetcars simply for the fun of it. In this way, the RTA is a destination in itself. Our streetcars and buses are both a symbol of the city and an essential part of it.
At present, the RTA system includes three streetcar lines and 32 bus routes, and we offer special paratransit services to the disabled. Our vehicles cover 14,000 miles each day, and our passengers take almost 12 million rides every year.
The oldest component of the RTA is the St. Charles streetcar line. It began in 1835 as a passenger railway between New Orleans and a suburb called Carrollton, which has since been absorbed into the city. The St. Charles line was one of the first passenger railroads in the country, and it remains the oldest continuously operating street railway in the world.
As the city grew, so did the transportation network. In the early part of the twentieth century, a number of different private streetcar companies operated various lines throughout New Orleans. They competed with each other, which ended up creating inconsistent service for the public and costly inefficiencies for their owners. In the 1920s, the New Orleans city government formed an organization called New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI), to consolidate not only public transit but also competing electricity and gas companies.
In the 1960s, buses began to displace many streetcar lines in New Orleans. Worried that an important part of the city’s heritage would be lost, preservationists succeeded in listing the St. Charles line on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1973. Because of this special status, all the green St. Charles streetcars need to appear and be maintained and operated as they were in 1920.
In the first part of the last century, utility companies across the country were often in charge of operating their city’s public transit systems, but these companies began to prefer focusing on providing power and looked to divest themselves of the public transport function. NOPSI (which later became Entergy) was no exception. As a result, the Louisiana State Legislature established the Regional Transit Authority in 1979. After a transition period, in 1983 the RTA became fully responsible for operating and maintaining all city bus routes and the St. Charles streetcar line. The RTA established the Riverfront streetcar line in 1988 and revived the Canal Streetcar line in 2004.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through the city and damaged the city’s levees and caused catastrophic flooding. The flooding destroyed most of the RTA’s vehicles and facilities. Although recovery remains ongoing, the RTA has made tremendous progress in reviving its streetcar lines and bus routes, including replacing its bus and paratransit fleet with new buses, thereby making the city’s fleet one of the newest in the country. Improved operations, on-time performance, maintenance and safety has led to dramatic increases in ridership. In addition, the agency has won grants and raised capital for a series of new projects, including new streetcar service along Loyola Avenue between Canal Street and the Union Passenger Terminal as well as for the neighborhoods around the French Quarter.
Part of the RTA’s renaissance includes higher environmental standards. Our new buses run on bio-diesel, which emits much lower levels of CO2 and other emissions when compared to standard diesel fuel. Tires are filled with nitrogen which better maintains tire pressure and leads to improved fuel efficiency. As always, streetcars are powered by overhead electrical lines, resulting in even lower net emissions than gasoline-powered vehicles.
The body in charge of making major decisions for the RTA is the Board of Commissioners. The board consists of appointees by the Mayor of New Orleans and of some appointees by the President of Jefferson Parish. The RTA Board has the overall authority for transit in New Orleans including setting fares, overseeing service and operations, developing operating budgets, approving each year’s annual transportation development plan, and deciding upon capital purchases and expansions.
Under contract to the RTA Board of Commissioners, a company called Veolia Transportation manages all day-to-day aspects of the transit agency on behalf of the RTA Board. Veolia handles operations and service, safety issues, vehicle maintenance, customer care, route design and scheduling, human resources, administration, ridership growth, capital planning, grant administration, communications, purchasing, and other agency functions. Veolia is under contract to and reports to the RTA Board of Commissioners. The company operates public transportation for some 5,000 transit authorities around the world.
This unique partnership between a public agency and the private sector gives the RTA’s customers the best of both worlds. A board that is accountable to elected leaders controls policies, budgets and overall direction, while riders benefit from the cost effectiveness, efficiencies and expertise of a private sector organization.