Could eliminating the cost of transit fares help New Orleans’ youth thrive as they navigate educational and employment opportunities? That’s the case that transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans and partner organizations have been making for more than a year. Soon, they will have a chance to put it to the test. Next year, the group plans to roll out a new year-long pilot program that will allow “opportunity youth” — ages 16 to 24 — to ride New Orleans Regional Transit Authority buses, streetcars and ferries for free. 

At a breakfast and panel discussion Tuesday morning for the group’s latest annual “State of Transit” report, Ride Executive Director Courtney Jackson and New Orleans City Councilmember Helena Moreno highlighted the upcoming program as a bright spot in local efforts to improve transit access. The pilot, funded with $2.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act money that was allocated by the council is “focused on the positive effects of having free transit for youth,” Moreno said in an opening address. 

Ride and partners are now in the early stages of designing the program – working on a budget and figuring out how youth who would benefit from the program can access it.

“This is not happening tomorrow,” Jackson said. “There’s so many moving pieces and it’s taken a lot to bring everybody to the table.”

Jackson said a start date for the pilot has not been determined, but she is hopeful that it could begin in the summer. 

Jackson said to get to the table, Ride worked with its own “youth transit leadership cohort” of organizers ages 16 to 24 and partnered with youth-oriented organizations to identify the needs of young transit riders. Ride pitched the idea for free fares  in a 2022 report that pointed out inequities in access to transportation between high and low-income and Black and white households in New Orleans. 

School-aged riders already get reduced fares — a one-day Jazzy Pass for youths from kindergarten- through high-school-ages is $1, compared to $3 for adults, and a one month pass is $18, compared to $45 for adults. But, Ride’s 2022  report said, cost is still creating a barrier for many youths. Notably, many of the youths who will benefit from the pilot  are ineligible for the current reduced fare, as it does not apply to most young people between the ages of 20 and 24. 

The report was picked up by the Big Easy Budget coalition, a group that aims to reduce violence through increased equity, which pitched the idea for no-cost transit for opportunity youth at a City Council budget meeting in April and found a partner in councilmember Moreno. The $2.5 million was allocated to the pilot in late May. 

The program comes at a difficult moment for public transit in New Orleans. In recent months RTA bus riders have experienced long wait times at bus stops due to an aging fleet with frequent mechanical breakdowns. The agency is gearing up to reduce its active fleet and service schedule in January in hopes that the buses that are on the road – many of which were purchased after 2019, and more likely require preventative maintenance –  will arrive at stops when the schedule says they will. 

According to the “State of Transit” report, while access to jobs via public transportation has improved in recent years by some measures, the number of jobs that were accessible to transit riders in less than an hour fell by 2.5% between 2022 and 2023. 

More frequent service and better job access could return in late-2024, when the RTA expects to begin adding newly purchased hybrid-electric buses to its active fleet. 

The “State of Transit’ report says funding for public transit is “limited and remains undiversified.” Currently the RTA gets most of its operating funding (57.8%) from a one-cent sales tax. Federal funding makes up 21.7% of revenues and fares make up another 7.2%. Other taxes, including hotel taxes that the agency splits with tourism-promotion agencies — an arrangement that is the subject of ongoing litigation — make up the rest.

Jackson said if the pilot is successful, the program will need to be sustained by outside funding that does not put any extra burden on the RTA’s bottom line.  

“It’s not free fare, it’s zero fare,” Jackson emphasized in an interview. “That money’s got to come from somewhere and it can’t come from the transit agency. There’d be no point in doing that because you’d end up hurting service.” 

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Before joining Verite, Bobbi-Jeanne Misick reported on people behind bars in immigration detention centers and prisons in the Gulf South as a senior reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration...