The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority will reduce its active bus fleet by about 15% in mid-January, agency CEO Lona Edwards Hankins told members of the agency’s governing board on Thursday (Nov. 9). The change comes as the RTA has faced criticism for frequent delays, often due to maintenance problems. Hankins said the reduction will help reduce those delays.
Under the plan, the agency will cut the number of buses that will be available for service from 126 to 108.
Of the buses remaining in the fleet, the RTA will aim for 70 of them to be on the road during peak-service times, down from the 87 that it currently requires (that was already a reduction from earlier this year, when the agency’s peak-time goal was 97 buses). The remaining 38 active buses, some of which might be receiving maintenance work on any given day, would be available to take over for buses that are taken out of service.
The reduction will require new bus schedules, which have not yet been announced, likely with longer scheduled wait times between buses. But Hankins said the plan will help ensure that the agency is able to follow its schedules.
“If I tell you the bus is gonna be there at 3 o’clock, it is actually there at 3 o’clock,” Hankins said in a Thursday interview. “Right now because of predominantly maintenance issues, what we’re seeing is that if I told them the bus was there at 3 and they’re having to wait two hours and it’s not there at 3.”
The RTA has struggled to meet its peak-service time goal of 87 buses on the road to meet its current pick-up schedules. In August and September, the most recent months for which data is available, the daily average number of buses actually on the road dipped to 84 and 82 respectively.
“We’re only really delivering high 60s to low 70s on any given day,” Hankins told board members at a Thursday committee meeting. “Lets pick a goal that we can consistently deliver those vehicles.”
Many New Orleans bus riders have become frustrated by long wait times as buses fall behind schedule due to breakdowns of aging buses that are then pulled off the street for repairs.
On Wednesday, Willy Lee, a dishwasher at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse in the French Quarter, sat on a bench at a stop on the currently out-of-service Rampart streetcar line watching videos on his phone, waiting for his shift to start. He left home two and a half hours before his 4 p.m. shift began.
“I leave home around 1:30 because the bus be kinda late,” he said.
Lee lives in the Little Woods neighborhood in New Orleans East and must transfer buses in order to get downtown, adding more possibility for delays. He said sometimes buses don’t arrive at their expected time shown on Le Pass, the RTA’s app.
In a September interview, Hankins blamed the problems, in part, on a lack of qualified mechanics to quickly fix problems, perform routine maintenance and get buses back on the road.
The plan announced Thursday will address that by reducing the number of buses that the agency’s mechanics have to work on. Of the 18 buses being pulled out of the active fleet, 10 are being put “to sleep.” The RTA will hold onto them, but they will be removed from the roads and the maintenance pool. (The agency currently has 14 buses in that category, bringing the total to 24 beginning in January.) The other eight will be permanently retired.
The RTA also hopes to reduce maintenance-related delays by updating its fleet. Of the 108 buses remaining, about half are three years old or less. More than 50 of the buses in the reduced fleet were purchased between 2020 and 2022. Hankins said they should only need preventative maintenance, which its mechanics can perform relatively quickly and easily.
The agency RTA also recently purchased 21 new buses with COVID-19 relief funds. Hankins said assembly on those could begin as early as February. Previously the manufacturer said assembly would begin in March. If there are no delays, those new buses could begin rolling into the RTA’s yard by June and on the street by September Hankins told the board.
“Then we can add service, right?” Hankins told Verite. “With the fleet we can return it to more frequent service so that we’re constantly building the world class [service] that New Orleans deserves, in whatever shape or form that New Orleans wants it to be.”
Courtney Jackson, executive director of transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans, said the reduction in fleet is not what Ride wants for bus users, but she can understand that this is what’s needed for now to improve on-time performance.
“The RTA is in a rough situation as it relates to the fleet,” Jackson said. “Riders need reliability and what they’re saying [will] solve the problem is these cuts. We just want to make sure that all the T’s were crossed and all the I’s were dotted.”
Jackson said RIDE will meet with RTA executives to ensure that all viable options to improve reliability have been implemented, “because at the end of the day, riders deserve to know that the agency has done everything in their ability.”
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