By Stephen Crim, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
The U.S. Department of Transportation has opened the application process for $527 million in grants for transportation projects under the name TIGER III. In an earlier round of similar funding, last year the Regional Transit Authority won $45 million for the Loyola Avenue line.
As a transit rider and advocate, I certainly want to see New Orleans continue to win Federal funding for new bus and rail service, but the only thing worse than no transit investment is wasteful transit investment.
For months now, the RTA has been trying to figure out how to fund its Convention Center Loop, but as currently designed this project would be both a waste of valuable federal dollars and a missed opportunity to invest in more important transit infrastructure. The pubic needs to make sure the RTA doesn’t pursue TIGER III dollars to fund this ill-considered project.
Public opposition to the Convention Center Loop — which would ring the Morial Convention Center with 1.7 miles of track capable of running streetcars in only one direction — has been consistent since early 2009, with residents and community groups repeatedly telling the RTA that new tracks and service would better serve the city elsewhere. After all, New Orleans already has a streetcar to the Convention Center: it’s called the Riverfront line.
The connection between the Riverfront streetcars and the Convention Center meeting halls has been closed for some time, and streetcars do not currently stop at the line’s terminus at John Churchill Chase station. At an April meeting, the RTA blamed the hiatus in Riverfront service on financial, legal and permitting issues, including unspecified problems affecting the skywalk that links the tracks with the Convention Center. Rather than build a whole new set of tracks – at a cost of $50 million – the RTA should address these problems and find more cost-efficient ways to put the Riverfront line back in service to the Convention Center.
If the RTA insists the Convention center is the proper focus of streetcar improvements, TIGER III money would be better spent to enhance shelters, the skywalk, wayfinding, connections to the Julia Street Cruise Terminal, etc. That would free TIGER III money to extend the Riverfront line further upriver to Mardi Gras World – a far wiser use of the federal funds than duplicating existing service with the Convention Center Loop.
Better yet, in the view of my colleagues at Transport for NOLA, would be dedicating TIGER III dollars to more critical streetcar projects, such as placing the Rampart/St. Claude line entirely on an expanded neutral ground, extending the new line to Poland Avenue, and connecting the Loyola line to the St. Charles line via Howard Avenue. TIGER III money would also be well spent on our bus system, to purchase new vehicles, install more shelters, or roll out GPS-enabled signs that tell waiting passengers when the next bus is coming.
Of course, we are disappointed that TIGER III (unlike earlier rounds) will not provide funds for the kind of transit planning work that the city and region really need. Rather than the opaque, piecemeal process that generates project ideas like the Convention Center Loop, we need a formal collaboration between engineers, residents, businesses, and transit agencies to create a powerful, multi-decade vision for transit investment. That way we’d develop a blueprint that our region could use for funding applications and development for years to come. Other cities like Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., are doing it and so can we.
Stephen Crim is a board member with Transport for NOLA, an organization that seeks to create a world-class transportation system in the Greater New Orleans region that is based on equity, accessibility, and best practices. For more information visit www.transportfornola.org.