Shelter from the storm Councilwoman Liz Hebert launches a program to cover Lafayette's bus stops.

Councilwoman Liz Hebert has pushed for a public-private solution to add more bus shelters along Lafayette's bus routes. Peter DeHart

During bad weather, Councilwoman Liz Hebert’s phone rings like crazy.

“Every time it rains, people ask me, ‘please do something, please do something’ about the bus stops,” Hebert says. “Mothers are standing in the rain with their babies or employees are getting soaked waiting to go to work.”

This month, Hebert is launching a public-private partnership to speed the process of covering the city’s bus stops. Her “Adopt A Stop” program parallels work underway by Kate Durio, who runs the mayor’s CREATE program.

While it’s frustrating and disappointing that so little has been done for so long, it’s also heartening that people are concerned enough to reach out and seek solutions, notes Hebert. “The people of Lafayette can’t bear to see people sitting out in the rain,” the councilwoman says.

Those complaints haven’t fallen on deaf ears for Hebert and Durio, both of whom have been pursuing their own creative solutions to this problem for a couple of years.

According to City-Parish traffic engineer Warren Abadie, of Lafayette’s 618 bus stops, less than 10 percent are covered. Lafayette residents take about 5,000 trips on public transit each day, which means a lot of people are getting wet.

And it’s not just the rain. Without a shelter, there is nothing to protect riders from other sometimes brutal weather conditions, like 90-degree heat in the summer and last winter’s unusual duo of snowstorms. No benches means there is no place to sit down after a long day of work and nowhere to put down bags of groceries. Some stops are merely a sign on a telephone phone on a patch of dirt. These bare-boned bus stops are especially punishing for riders who are older, have small children or have a disability.

While there’s a strong driving culture in Lafayette, car ownership is still out of reach for many. Louisiana is among the poorest states in the nation, and a full-time hourly employee earning $14,500 per year would struggle to make a monthly car payment, much less pay for gas, maintenance and auto insurance, which happens to be the second-highest rate in the nation, according to Public transit is the only option for many Lafayette residents.

The City of Lafayette has budgeted for 11 stops to be covered each year, according to Abadie. But at that rate, all bus stops won’t have shelters until the year 2070.

After spending time studying the issue, Hebert and Durio decided they weren’t willing to wait until then.

Hebert’s program encourages businesses, civic organizations and individuals to sponsor covered stops. The city’s cost for a new covered bus stop is $6,000, which includes the concrete foundation, a bench, trashcan, roof, Wi-Fi and a nameplate for the sponsor. The city will continue to install 11 sheltered stops per year for now, while private citizens fund others at that same $6,000 price tag.

“I want to be 100 percent transparent,” says Hebert. “So all sponsorships will go through the 501c3, Community Foundation of Acadiana. From the time of the order to the time of installation should just take about two weeks.”

Companies can opt for a bus stop in front of their place of business for their employees or clientele, or they can donate a structure in a high-need area.

Hebert says several companies have already expressed an interest, with Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center and McDonald’s becoming the first to sign on officially to the Adopt a Stop program. The hospital has agreed not only to sponsor a new covered bus stop on hospital property for patients, visitors and employees, but on the north side as well to fill a need in the community. McDonald’s is sponsoring stops on Evangeline Thruway and Johnston Street.

(Disclosure: writer Laura Anders Lee is married to the president and CEO of Lourdes.)

Thanks to Paul Casey of the Acadiana Planning Commission, the city now knows the busiest bus stops.

“We did an on-board survey with 26 questions and determined more than half the riders were going to work, typically from their homes on the north and east side to their places of employment, such as restaurants and big-box stores, on Ambassador Caffery Parkway, Kaliste Saloom Road and Pinhook Road,” Casey says.

Durio says that the APC study informs how the city will prioritize which stops get new shelters first. In recent years, she’s worked closely with APC, Lafayette Consolidated Government, Hebert and others. She developed a passion for public transportation at the age of 19 when she moved to Portland, Ore.

“Portland has some of the best public transit systems in the country,” Durio says. “I felt comfortable, and it wasn’t intimidating. You can go out at night and leave your car [if you’ve been drinking]; you can read and do work on your morning commute, and if you’re traveling with kids, you can sit next to them and visit instead of getting frustrated driving in traffic. And, if you have that five- to 10-minute walk to the bus stop, that’s great exercise.”

Durio moved back home to Lafayette, and in 2016 started a citizen bus stop taskforce. Her plan was to improve the Downtown bus stops and radiate from there, but her goal soon became much bigger.

“Even with Paul’s audit, we soon realized it wasn’t just a matter of money for building shelters at those stops,” says Durio. “In some cases, the city didn’t have the right-of-way, the stops were on private property, there were ADA issues, no connecting sidewalks and even ditches in the way.”

Durio’s goal is to find something inexpensive, even less than $6,000, that will fit into tighter, more challenging sites that won’t currently accommodate a standard covered bus stop from the city.

“Our goal is to design a prototype that is minimal, replicable, sustainable, low-maintenance and open to creative elements,” she says.

But in their research, Durio and her taskforce struggled to find anything on the market to meet their needs — or for under $20,000 — so they looked into building their own. She received a grant for research and development to design their own prototype and even recruited a local architect and local artist to help with an original design, but they kept running into challenges.

“It was more difficult than we thought,” says Durio, who continues to research new vendors in the marketplace and has identified smart solutions in cities such as Chattanooga that might work for Lafayette. It’s been a long road, she notes, but she’s close to finding a solution.