Government & Politics

Streetcar expansion earned through public cooperation

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.


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  • More accurate description of how this exemplifies the way civic governance should work. Local officials propose to do something stupid. Citizens get ticked off and raise hell about it. The stupid plans are made less stupid.

  • It’s not that the Convention Center line is altogether stupid. It’s just that the Convention Center line obviously shouldn’t be the highest priority. But after those other two lines sprout like weeds, the Convention Center line will make more sense. It’s all good.

  • I lost track of the story around the time of your rant on the convention center line. Glad to have learned about the Transport for NOLA part of the story.

    Moral of the story; people be involved.

  • jeffrey

    I’m really not a fan of the Convention Ctr. line. But if we’re getting the St. Claude line (and the T-P article implies that RTA is still planning for it eventually) I’m fine with putting them all in. We like streetcars in New Orleans. Let’s put them all over the place.

    But my point was that government works for us only as long as we keep screaming at it. My primary concern about the Great Post Lombardi Gras Golden Age is that people will stop screaming and then nothing will happen.

  • What Jefferey said, all of it.
    But may I add that the energy investment for street cars compared to buses lays somewhere near 35% LESS dollars-to-work. However that leaves us in the grip of Entergy?
    Still, you put them where you can use them. St. Claude could use a line.
    This is such a great thing if you keep it for Transit.
    Thanks Eli.

  • mike

    What a waste of money. That line will be barely used. The station is like a ghost town most days.

    And to boot, this is not a public transportation town, no matter how bad progressives want it to be. I say this as someone who uses it too. You seen how empty the brand-spanking new buses are in the morning? These things cost hundreds of thousands and there is like 8 people on the them during the morning commute.

  • Mike, I will use this line to and from the Amtrac station, my life line into the city. It will save me immensely in cab fare and just having to hoof it. Our child-governor should be exorcised for passing up on the rail line to BR, from that very Union Station that we will have stitched-up wit’dis nifty streetcar network. I mean, put glasses on him and call him Orcle.

  • mike

    There’s no buses you can take from the station? I have to think there’s a bus stop or two near the station.

  • Migou

    I’m not convinced that the whole “all three are priorities” wasn’t just a ruse. After all, which one of the three has gotten approved first? The one they wanted all along. I have yet to hear an explanation as to how that one was chosen.

  • Nola

    Let’s recognize it wasn’t a giant leap from Convention Center to the Amtrak station bothas both are essentially tourist driven. It would be nice to see the Amtrak station become a hub for rail transportation for the Greater New Orleans Area (with links EAST and West – (Houston).
    Can the tracks we have currently have coming into the city handle this? Not really. They are overcrowded and freight takes priorioty. This is why our governor is stupid. Expansion is the only way to move from dependency on bus and auto.

    I agree that the St. Claude/N. Rampart expansion is good and serves more working New Orleanians.

    Streetcars popping up out of the ground like weeds sounds ok. I think the next step (after St. Claude) should be to “close the loop” and connect the Carrollton line to the Canal along SOUTH Carrollton.