Esplanade fatalities raise question: Why aren’t more Mardi Gras bus routes available?

The Zulu parade rolls down Jackson Avenue toward St. Charles Avenue on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

The season for Mardi Gras parades is a tough time to get around in New Orleans. Whether they start from Uptown or Mid-City, krewes use or cross several major thoroughfares to reach downtown. Buses and streetcars are taken off their normal routes, and trying to navigate past large crowds by vehicle can be futile.

But in the wake of last Saturday’s (March 2) fatal crash involving an alleged drunk driver, attention has turned to how the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority might beef up transit service to create more options for getting people to and from Mardi Gras parades other than by their cars.

More accessible public transit during Mardi Gras won’t stop every drunk driver from getting behind the wheel, but some local transit advocates say, at the very least, more conversations are needed about how RTA could boost parade service.

“This is always going to be a problem for the RTA, and there’s never going to be an easy solution,” Alex Posorske, executive director for the advocacy group Ride New Orleans, said Thursday. “But I think we need to be thinking a lot more creatively and proactively about what we can do better for future Mardi Gras (seasons).”

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Before parades start rolling, the RTA shortens several key bus routes Uptown and downtown. Buses that are 35 feet to 40 feet in length can’t be diverted to smaller side streets, especially those with vehicles parked along them, said Taslin Alfonzo, spokesperson for RTA manager Transdev.

Using smaller shuttles to temporarily replace full-sized buses is also not an option. Alfonzo said the 51 smaller vehicles currently in the RTA fleet are used exclusively for paratransit services.

Overall, Alfonzo said transit officials do not have any plans for a “one-off type service,” such as changing bus routes specifically for Mardi Gras parades. That kind of service change is "not what the RTA is designed to do,” she said.

Flozell Daniels, who chairs the RTA’s board of commissioners, did not respond to interview requests this week to discuss the agency’s Mardi Gras services.

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Posorske acknowledged the RTA has made strides in recent years to publicize detour information during Mardi Gras. But he said more effort could be made to get people closer to the edges of parade routes, either with shuttles or adding another bus or two to parade-shortened lines. Leaders with Ride New Orleans want to talk with RTA officials about what could be done to boost Mardi Gras service, he said.

“I think there’s a lot of room for creative thinking that can make this work better, both for people going to parades and people who are going to work,” Posorske said.

One idea, Posorske said, would be to expand bus service on the 15-Freret line, which parallels the St. Charles Avenue streetcar route.

Buses did not run on the 15-Freret line Fat Tuesday because parades crossed Freret Street at different intervals that day, Alfonzo said.

Posorske also suggests the RTA look at Magazine Street, among the most commonly traveled spots within the Uptown parade-blocked “box” of streets between Napoleon, St. Charles and Canal. Alfonzo said the RTA runs three buses on Magazine on a shortened route from Valence and Calliope streets during parades.

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Adding shuttles is an idea Tara Tolford supports. A research associate at the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute, Tolford said private shuttles have been used in the past to take Jazz Fest attendees to the Fair Grounds.

“I know a lot of folks who would use (shuttles),” Tolford said. “It would be great to see (RTA) add that to their repertoire if it could be successful.”

Like Posorske, Tolford said the RTA has improved how it advertises route disruptions during Mardi Gras. However, RTA could do more to encourage people to choose buses rather than just stating that they’re running, she added.

Tolford also acknowledged that any Mardi Gras tweaks the RTA might make would never eliminate drunk driving. But at least taking a look at what could be done differently seems like a wiser approach than keeping the same schedule without any discussion, she said.

“You’re never going to get that person to use transit,” Tolford said. “But you can probably get a lot of people off the road who, if they were given an easier alternative, would use it and make smarter choices.”

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