Against long odds, RTA seeks federal funds to extend streetcar line to Poland Avenue

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By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

With less than a month to go before the deadline for a final round of federal stimulus transit funding, city officials are pushing to extend the proposed Rampart Street/St. Claude Avenue streetcar line all the way to Poland Avenue, on Bywater’s downriver edge.

On a visit to New Orleans on Friday, U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari visited what would be a 2.4-mile addition to the French Quarter streetcar loop, currently slated to end at Press Street.

Porcari encouraged New Orleans officials to apply for the so-called TIGER grant, a spokesman said, but cautioned that no other city has won more than one of the competitive grants. In 2010, DOT awarded the city $45 million in TIGER funding to build a Loyola Avenue streetcar line. That 1.5-mile line is now under construction and projected to begin service between Union Passenger Terminal and Canal Street in mid-2012.

Despite the odds against the city getting a second helping of TIGER funds, the trip ended with Porcari excited over the project’s potential, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority CEO Justin Augustine said.

“(Porcari) is interested in working with us to help make it a reality,” Augustine said.  The RTA is now working with city officials to craft a TIGER III application, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said. The application is due on Oct. 31.

Porcari’s caution is warranted. The project remains a long shot. The city has no money for construction and it’s unclear whether the $90 million the RTA has in hand will be enough to complete construction of the first phase, between Canal and Press streets, given cost overruns on the Loyola Avenue line. A further complication: The extension requires a private rail operator, Norfolk Southern, to share a now-active rail crossing at Press Street. The company has long resisted that idea, citing an average of 36 freight trains traveling over the tracks daily.

“For safety reasons, Norfolk Southern has no streetcar crossings with its mainline tracks anywhere within its 22-state system,” spokeswoman Susan Terpay said in an email Tuesday.

Despite the challenges, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, a longtime streetcar champion who was at meetings with Porcari on Friday, remains hopeful. The vote of support from U.S. DOT signals not only growing momentum for the project, but also the possibility that the federal government will use its clout to get Norfolk Southern to negotiate, she said.

“(Porcari) committed his help to reaching an agreement with Norfolk Southern,” Palmer said.  “Norfolk Southern asks many things of the United States government and the Department of Transportation and it is my hope that we can use that leverage to achieve a transformative project for the citizens of New Orleans.”

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