BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — An accident in September left MiLisa York with a totaled vehicle and a crushed ankle, and she says she was unable to drive to her New Orleans paralegal job more than an hour from her home. She relies on a daily Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans commuter bus service that she says she can't afford to lose.
York is one of 12,000 riders a month who use LA Swift, which started shortly after Hurricane Katrina and will end its eight-year run within a month unless supporters can find the cash to keep it operating.
"It's like a lifeline for me and others, too. That bus is packed every day," said York, who lives in St. Gabriel.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration opted not to continue a subsidy for the service, leaving local officials and supporters scrambling to find the money needed to keep the buses rolling.
Critics say canceling LA Swift could cost the riders who depend on the service their jobs.
But state transportation officials say the transit system was intended only as a temporary measure to help displaced storm victims return to New Orleans to restore and rebuild homes after Katrina. The population of Baton Rouge swelled after the storm. New Orleans' slow recovery in the years immediately after the hurricane meant some people who moved to Baton Rouge didn't have homes to go back to in New Orleans even though their employers resumed business.
Since its inception, the federal government has shouldered the $2.3 million annual cost but now is requiring $750,000 in local funds to continue LA Swift beyond July 31.
Initially scheduled to shut down on June 30, state transportation officials announced Thursday that the service will live on another month to allow the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and economic development partnership Greater New Orleans Inc. a chance to find funding.
Chamber CEO Adam Knapp said the business community recognizes the important role the bus route plays in connecting the two cities' economies.
"The problem is not solved," Knapp said. "This is a one-month reprieve while we try to pull resources together."
Riders pay $10 for a roundtrip ticket, compared with up to $54 on Greyhound coaches.
In 2009, faced with the prospect of losing the service, York helped organize a protest on the steps of the Capitol. Plans to stop the service were dropped.
Now, York has started an online petition and Facebook page dedicated to saving the line.
"We have veterans on that bus who travel to the hospital. We have kids who attend LSU and Southern catching the bus," York said. "So, it's necessary and worthy of funding. The ridership is there."
State officials say the service, operated by the Hotard coach company, has served its purpose.
"The federal government is no longer willing to fund what's become a local transit service," state Department of Transportation and Development spokeswoman Lauren Lee said.
Since service began Oct. 31, 2005 — about two months after Katrina struck — the federal government has paid about $17 million to operate the system through annual grants. The federal government will continue to kick in an annual grant of $1.6 million, but local authorities must cover the remaining costs.
The rider fee covers operational costs for the bus owner. Though supporters say they'd be willing to pay more, state officials said that under the federal grant, rider fees can't be increased to use as the local money.
Hotard supplies five buses that make daily stops in Baton Rouge, Gonzales, Sorrento, LaPlace, Kenner and New Orleans. The earliest pickup is at 4:30 a.m. in Baton Rouge and 6:20 a.m. in New Orleans, with evening routes ending around 8:15 p.m.
Rachel Heiligman, executive director of Ride New Orleans, a nonprofit public transit advocacy group, said the state should expand connectivity between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
"What's frustrating is that what we're seeing from Jindal's administration is a pattern of the state turning its back on the transit-dependent population," Heiligman said.
Ride New Orleans, AARP Louisiana and the Center for Planning Excellence surveyed more than 300 LA Swift riders in April. The survey showed that 51 percent of the riders used the service for jobs, 44 percent used the service to visit family and friends, and 14 percent used it to access health care services, Heiligman said.
According to the DOTD, average daily ridership is 400. From January to May of this year, nearly 30,000 passengers boarded.
Despite the relative popularity of the service, its funding was not a publicly discussed topic during the recently-ended legislative session. DOTD announced in a news release the day after the session ended that the bus service would be ending.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said she didn't know the bus service was ending until she read about it in the newspaper.
"No one brought it to our attention," she said.
Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the state's decision not to pick up funding for the bus service was discussed informally among some New Orleans legislators. He said there was a consensus that the state had greater needs, such as stopping cuts to higher education and increasing funds for K-12 education.
Of LA Swift, he said, "We had an extremely tight budget, and we didn't have the funds to keep it going. It pains me that people who need the service will have to find alternate transportation."
Sonia Bruno, 51, of Baton Rouge, said she has no alternative transportation to the New Orleans hotel, where she's worked for 17 years. She moved to Baton Rouge after Katrina so her husband could receive dialysis treatment. He died earlier this year, Bruno said.
"I never drove; my husband took me everywhere I needed to go," Bruno said. "A lot of people are going to lose their job. I don't drive — I depend on that bus."