MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. Bus riders in New Orleans will start paying fares on Sunday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. Federal subsidies have allowed the buses to operate free of charge since last fall. NPR's Molly Peterson hopped on a New Orleans bus - for free - and she has this report.
MOLLY PETERSON reporting:
The number 12 St. Charles was a streetcar line before Katrina's high winds brought the oaks crashing through its overhead lines. Now it's a bus route and a place where New Orleanians have been reuniting after the storm.
According to a local survey, the only municipal service more beloved than the bus is the fire department. Rosalind Cook from the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority - the RTA - says when people saw the buses come back they'd cheer. Here the bus system is like a member of the family.
Ms. ROSALIND COOK (New Orleans Regional Transit Authority): In fact, you would hear young school children call the bus Aunt Rita. Here comes Aunt Rita. Pick me up. You know?
Unidentified Woman: Not a little bus no more. It's a big bus. It's not a little bus.
PETERSON: But Aunt Rita's not hauling as many people as she used to. The 26,000 boardings a day mean ridership is down to less than a quarter what is was before the storm. Bus dependent service workers and seniors are still riding. Eighty-year-old Herbert Young is heading back home after gambling downtown at Harrah's for a couple of hours, something he does every morning and will keep doing even when the fare boxes are back.
Mr. HERBERT YOUNG: It don't make no difference with me. I've been paying all my life anyway. So it don't make no...
PETERSON: There's also a new clientele these days. Arturo and his brothers put up sheetrock, nail floors and paint walls for a local contractor. Arturo says New Orleans buses are friendlier than in his hometown of Houston. And they're helping him learn the city.
ARTURO (Construction Worker): Maybe I would like to come and live for a little while in New Orleans, but now I can't because I have my baby in Houston. So I just come to work and like on all weekends spend the time with my baby and my wife.
PETERSON: With contracting money in his pocket, Arturo says he can afford the $1.25 fare. But several riders say after Sunday they'll ride less, including David, a 48-year-old homeless man.
DAVID (Homeless): It's about time for them to start charging again. I mean, because they've got to pay the bus drivers.
Ms. JULIA WILLIAMS (Bus driver): You're right about that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PETERSON: That's driver Julia Williams.
Ms. WILLIAMS: It will be 27 years November the 5th I'll be driving for RTA.
PETERSON: Williams' mid-city house was up to the eaves in water. She didn't come back to work until February. The top end of driver's pay scale is still 17 bucks an hour and Williams says she's getting by.
Ms. WILLIAMS: That's because right now by me living in a trailer I don't have that much expenses as if I was living in my house. But I'm making it, by the grace of God.
PETERSON: Williams says she's just grateful for work. Pre-storm, the RTA had more than 1,300 drivers. It's down to about half that and more could be laid off soon. The RTA's Rosalind Cook says transit system routes are in flux. The agency is still studying how many people need service in different parts of the city.
Ms. COOK: And from there you kind of estimate where you're going to put the big buses and how often you need to run them. And of course you have to be responsible, you can't send a bus out for one person.
PETERSON: Yet on the number 12 route, some riders think the city can't come back if the transit system starts cutting service and charging fares. Glenn is riding uptown to do some maintenance work.
GLENN: I think it's kind of lousy. People pinching pennies right now trying to fix their house up, especially folks that ain't got no insurance. I'm one of them. I didn't have insurance on my home. So now I'm struggling.
PETERSON: Glenn says if the St. Charles line is any indication, it will be a long time before the city gets back in order. For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in New Orleans.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.