By Jeff Schwartz,  guest opinion writer and founding member of  Transport for Nola

Streetcars once served communities throughout New Orleans. Today, for very good reasons, they’re coming back. That’s grounds for celebration, but also for concern that we don’t make some simple mistakes.

This week, the RTA board made an important commitment to invest local funds in new streetcar service downtown and along the Rampart Street/St. Claude Avenue corridor. This new streetcar line will further secure New Orleans’ position as a national leader in multimodal transit options.  As the president of the board of Transport for NOLA, a non-profit organization that advocates for progressive transit options, I congratulate the RTA and Veolia for their leadership on this issue.

There is still work to be done, however, to ensure that this investment generates the greatest benefit for New Orleans.  Because the North Rampart/St. Claude line is funded completely with local dollars, the city and the RTA have the time and flexibility to do the project right.

Transport for NOLA fully supports plans eventually to extend service along Elysian Fields Avenue, connecting the Riverfront to the 6th and 7th Wards, Gentilly, and UNO, but we should wait until we have funding for the full line, not commit to build it in increments. The phase-one plan to run tracks along Elysian Fields linking the Riverfront line to the new North Rampart/St. Claude line adds over 20% to the project cost while introducing few if any new riders to the system.  The residents and visitors served by the spur are already within walking distance of the major lines. Worse yet, the Elysian Fields segment will reduce the frequency of service on the North Rampart/St. Claude line; every third or fourth streetcar will turn down Elysian Fields rather than continuing on to the Press Street terminus.

The savings from not building the Elysian Fields segment can be applied to important future extensions that RTA Chairwoman Barbara Major has said she favors.   The most important of these would be the Howard Avenue connection between the St. Charles and Loyola avenue lines and the extension of the St. Claude line to Poland Avenue. These small extensions, connecting new to existing lines, would also introduce new ridership. This is critical to improving service for both visitors and residents dependent on streetcars as their basic transportation. They are essential to maximizing this new RTA investment in terms of economic development and the quality of life in the city and its neighborhoods.

Transport for Nola envisions major expansion of the New Orleans streetcar system.

In addition to reprioritizing their current investment, the RTA should tweak its  proposed designs, above all by placing the streetcar tracks on the Rampart/St. Claude neutral ground. This will require widening that median, but the additional costs are well worth the investment.  Placing transit in a separate right-of-way that does not interact with auto traffic will dramatically increase the efficiency and timeliness of the streetcar line. That’s critical to creating high levels of ridership and promoting investment along the corridor. It also will afford the City the opportunity to place bike lanes and wheelchair ramps along the entire route, measures that will generally enhance the pedestrian-friendliness of this burgeoning commercial and arts corridor. The neutral ground is the historically authentic route for streetcar tracks through this part of New Orleans, a tremendous asset that should be exploited for public benefit.

As the RTA finalizes plans for the new streetcar lines, Transport for NOLA encourages the city to create a long-term transit plan for the Greater New Orleans region. The success of the RTA in securing both federal and local funding for the expansion of the system hinged in large part on plans that were developed over the past two decades. Without them, the current momentum toward financing and implementing an exciting new chapter in the city’s transportation history would have been severely undercut.  To continue our success in applying for federal funds and to assure the proper stewardship of local investments, it’s time for the RTA, the Regional Planning Commission, and the City of New Orleans to create an even broader vision for reviving rail-based service within and beyond parish lines.