By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

The City Council is throwing its weight behind Bywater residents and businesses calling on the Regional Transit Authority to expand streetcar service to the neighborhood’s Poland Avenue eastern boundary.

The council today approved a resolution requesting that the agency extend a planned French Quarter line another mile beyond its current endpoint at the Press Street railroad tracks, which divide Marigny from Bywater. The requested extension,

The tracks at Press Street are an obstacle the streetcar extension must overcome.

to a point just west of the Industrial Canal, would connect to a new cruise ship terminal planned for the Poland Avenue wharf, help improve the mobility of neighborhood residents and create new opportunities for economic development in the downtown enclave, said Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer, who represents the area and authored the resolution.

“Bywater has been cut off from the rest of the city for far too long. This is an important step to reconnect people to jobs and businesses,” she said.

Palmer advocated for the extension long before stepping into office and has sisters who operate a nonprofit art gallery in the neighborhood. She said she hopes the council support will pressure the RTA to step up negotiations with Norfolk Southern, the railway operator that controls the tracks. Norfolk Southern has in the past objected to the prospect of granting the right-of-way needed for a streetcar to cross Press Street. “They haven’t come to the table and we need that to change,” Palmer said.

The council resolution lacks binding legal force, and while the RTA has said that it, too, would like to extend the streetcar past Press Street, the board-run authority has not yet taken significant steps towards realizing the goal.

In an interview last week with The Lens and FOX8 News, RTA chief Justin Augustine said that he would ask his board to begin thinking seriously about extending the planned line to Poland Avenue.

“We are still in the preliminary design phase so now is the time to start looking at how to do it,” he said. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said in the past that he too supports an extension, though the city has let the RTA take the lead on the issue.

Current plans have the RTA using $79 million in bond money to pay for the French Quarter loop ending at Press Street, with a spur at Elysian Fields Avenue. Each mile of track costs $20- $25 million, so adding on the extra mile to get to Poland Avenue would mean raising more money before construction begins in the summer of 2012, Augustine said. He did not respond directly to the claim by transit activists that the Elysian Fields spur will cost $18 million while failing to bring streetcar access to many residents. The critics argue that the spur could be eliminated without much of a public cost, and the $18 million rerouted to the Poland Avenue segment.

“I champion and respect their opinion. But more importantly, we have to get all parties to the table and see what’s really viable,” Augustine said.

Getting Norfolk Southern to the table, however, may not be easy, judging from a response the company sent to The Lens this week. When asked if they would consider granting a right-of-way for a streetcar to cross Press Street, Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband highlighted the same safety concerns that have historically halted conversations. “We are opposed to an at-grade railroad crossing at Press Street because it would create an unsafe situation for both streetcar and freight rail,” he said.