New Orleans is on a rail!

Mardi Gras is over and the Super Bowl celebrations are retracting from their peak but the good news keeps on sliding down the track. On Wednesday, New Orleans was awarded one of 51 grants made eligible for the expansion of public transportation under last year’s stimulus program. The city will get $45 million to expand streetcar service with a new route that will connect the Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola Avenue to Canal Street. The city has until October to sign deals to actually build the thing, so by unscientific guesstimation, we will have a new streetcar line at our service sometime in the next few years.

It will provide public transportation service to a corridor in the Central Business District and adjacent to City Hall, both critical to civic life. It also sets the stage to once again make the Union Passenger Terminal a relevant transit hub, with convenient passenger trains to Baton Rouge and the airport on the medium-term agenda for the region.

There’s an important lesson in this victory.

The fact is that the Regional Transit Authority almost didn’t even submit a grant application for a route on Loyola Avenue.

Last spring, the RTA convened a series of public meetings to determine which out of three proposed streetcar expansions would be used to apply for federal money. The choices were the eventual winning route on Loyola; a line that would have connected the Convention Center to Canal Street along Convention Center Boulevard; and one that would have run along Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue  all the way from Canal to Poland Avenue.

Though officials  auspiciously stated they had no pre-existing favorite, the usual powerbrokers were signaling their preference for the line along Convention Center Boulevard, which clearly would have favored tourists over local residents.

At the time, I was pretty ticked off about the prospects of another planning decision made to please an already privileged industry over alternatives that might actually make life easier for my neighbors and lay the groundwork for a truly advanced public transit system.

Thankfully, citizens organized Transport For Nola, which quickly raised awareness of the impending decision and advocated for a hybrid proposal essentially combining the Loyola Avenue and Rampart Street routes. Though their composite idea didn’t make it into the RTA’s grant applications, the public relations brush fire they caused was enough to ensure that the RTA didn’t simply submit the Convention Center route.

Instead, they built a consensus and submitted applications for all three proposed lines.

Had it not been for public outcry, I strongly suspect that only the Convention Center line would have been used to apply for stimulus dollars. New Orleans could have been entirely left out of this round of federal funding.

Credit is also due to the RTA and the private company, Veolia, which runs its operations, for being responsive to the public and doing the extra work required to submit more than one grant application.

The process showcases how civic governance should work:

An agency presents an opportunity to the public, residents are invited to weigh in, the agency then capitalizes on that opportunity in a manner responsive to the public’s preferences, and then streetcars tracks grow out of the ground like weeds.