RTA expects a share of federal stimulus dollars, takes more steps to protect employees & passengers

RTA Operations and Stimulus bill
An RTA bus stops to pick up a passenger.
An RTA bus stops to pick up a passenger. (Source: WVUE)

The Regional Transit Authority expects to benefit from some of the federal dollars that will flow to Louisiana because of the CARES Act and RTA bus operators will soon have more protection against the spread of COVID-19.

Lydia Spadoni waited to catch a bus to a grocery store. She said the wait was longer than usual because of bus schedule changes.

"Right now, it’s crazy because they done changed,” Spadoni said. “I’ve been home, inside for two days doing whatever and I said, well, today I’m going to try and go out and get some other essentials that I need.”

The Jackson-Esplanade bus that Spadoni routinely catches is operating on a Saturday schedule for now because of the pandemic. Spadoni said the virus is causing a lot of pain.

"I have a couple of friends that’s sick, so I know what’s happening to New Orleans and it’s frightening, this is worse than a hurricane I think,” Spadoni said. “The reason I’m really out here is my grandson’s truck broke yesterday, so [otherwise] I would have asked him to take and run me where I had to go, but now the bus is my transportation, period, I never drove.”

Other routes have reduced frequency, and some have been temporarily suspended, according to the RTA.

"Partly, the reduction is really the result of our patrons working with us, what we’re communicating is that, we will absolutely be here for you to help you get to the doctor, to help you get to the grocery store and take care of those needs but we really are encouraging essential travel only,” RTA CEO Alex Wiggins said.

The RTA also operates streetcars and the Algiers ferry in New Orleans.

"What we’re seeing is about a 90 percent reduction in ridership on our streetcar-line, about a 90 percent reduction on our ferry-line,” Wiggins said.

He said larger numbers of people are still taking the bus.

“And on our bus system we’re seeing a fluctuation, it’s really only seeing about a 60 and 70 percent reduction in ridership,” Wiggins said. “We, unfortunately, have to minimize risks to the patrons and our operators, so we’re only operating at 50 percent capacity right now but of those trips that are taken we’re finding that the public is really using us only for essential travel which is helping everyone out.”

Weeks ago, the RTA said was increasing its sanitizing protocols and Wiggins said other steps are being taken to protect bus operators.

"We're retro-fitting our buses with a plexiglass shield to protect them from patrons who may board and then cough or sneeze in their direction. Our operators will also be wearing face masks,” he said.

And the RTA has social-distancing goals, as well.

"What we'd like to see is for streetcars to maintain anywhere from 10 to 15 passengers is relatively safe, gives everyone a chance to spread out on streetcars,” Wiggins stated. “On the buses ideally on our larger buses 15 to 25 patrons per bus is fine on a

60-foot bus, our 40-foot bus which is the majority of our fleet, 15 to 20 passengers is the maximum of what we'd like to see."

And Wiggins said they should know soon exactly how much the RTA will receive from the federal economic stimulus package.

"How we will apply those dollars is essentially cover the cost of lost revenue and service right now. Of course, our service and ridership is down significantly. That will be able to help us cover the costs of employees that we’ve had working from home during this time, as well as cover the cost of PPE, etc,” Wiggins said.

PPE stands for personal protective equipment.

Spadoni is thrilled she still has a public transit bus to catch.

“Thank God they are still running,” she said.

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