After the announcement earlier this week that New Orleans won a $45 million federal stimulus program grant to build a new streetcar line on Loyola Avenue, I reminisced about the role of citizen watchdogs in ensuring that the Regional Transit Authority didn’t capitulate to tourism industry interests that wanted only to apply for a route to service tourists at the Convention Center.
It makes sense that the Loyola Avenue line was appealing to federal administrators. Not only does it connect the Union Passenger Terminal to Canal Street, but it also seems to be a logical starting point for future extensions to the Ninth Ward along Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue, or to Central City along O.C. Haley Boulevard. By making the Union Passenger Terminal a municipal transit hub, New Orleans has opened the door for a route to the airport and the expansion of passenger rail service across the Gulf region.
Especially with that enticing possibility in mind, this seized opportunity also brings to mind one that was badly missed.
The stimulus program also asked states to apply for high-speed rail money to build networks between cities. New Orleans could be a critical hub for the Gulf Coast system. In a delightful twist, according this map of a proposed system from the Federal Railroad Administration, Houston would be dependent on New Orleans for rail network access.
Yet, after then-Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development William Anker instructed his agency to begin assembling an application to build a route between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Governor Bobby Jindal ordered the process to halt. He called the rail project unnecessary pork. Anker has since resigned.
The streetcar grant award for New Orleans comes during a week in which the entire stimulus program is being re-evaluated at its one-year anniversary, after it was passed over nearly unanimous Republican opposition. The GOP has argued vehemently that the program merely pays for pet projects under the auspices of job creation, spreading money around without little regard for the merits.
Yet, the programs for public transportation and rail projects are not typical block grant programs in which states or municipalities are given a predetermined bunch of money with little oversight. Rather, cities and states compete for cash based on the sophistication and value of their proposal.
Bobby Jindal may have found it critical to the maintenance of his political principles to put the kibosh on the state’s application for high-speed passenger rail service, but voters are starting to see real-life infrastructure projects in their backyards after so many years without significant federal contribution. The governor might yet come to regret day he turned down “free” federal money high speed rail. Though there is little evidence he will pay a short-term political price, these kinds of decisions to eschew innovative opportunities may not be so easy on the conscience over the long term.