Land Use

‘Tourist trolley’ vs. public transit: Will locals actually use the new streetcar line?

Construction crews have begun work on a section of the Rampart streetcar line along the French Quarter's northern boundary.

Jed Horne

Crews resumed work Tuesday on a section of the Rampart streetcar line along the French Quarter's northern boundary.

I love the idea of streetcars; they’re charming. But I am not in favor of charming public transport in lieu of good, fair, functional public transport.

With a last-minute lawsuit tossed out of court, the Regional Transit Authority has broken ground on the Rampart/St. Claude streetcar line between Canal Street and Elysian Fields Avenue. It’s a two-year construction project that will be financed with an initial $41.5 million garnered from a 2010 bond sale. At 1.6 miles in length, it’s a tiny piece of the 33 miles of new lines that the RTA hopes to build — someday, some way — at a cost of $900 million.

I live just blocks from the Elysian Fields terminus, and I can see no benefits to public transportation in my area from this costly new infrastructure.

There are currently three bus lines which, as one small part of their extensive routes across the city, duplicate all or part of the forthcoming streetcar line.

The St. Claude/Jackson Barracks (No. 88 bus) and the Franklin (No. 57) come from the lower 9th Ward and Lakefront, respectively, and duplicate the Rampart Streetcar line in its entirety.   The Jackson-Esplanade (No. 91) joins Delgado Community College and Mid-City with the Lower Garden District and the Irish Channel, and duplicates the portion of the planned streetcar line between Esplanade Avenue and Canal.

Indeed, the 1.6 mile strip the new streetcar will cover is a part of the city already well served by RTA buses. But for all the public meetings and fact sheets, the RTA has made little mention of how the new service will be integrated with existing bus lines.

I recently called the special number — (504) 577-2688 — set up by the RTA to answer questions about the new streetcar. A very nice person listened patiently as I rattled off questions about buses from the lower 9th, St. Claude and Esplanade, and then politely informed me that she doesn’t live in Louisiana, doesn’t know our streets, and was therefore unable to answer or even understand my questions.  (Our money is being used to pay out-of-state people to NOT answer our questions?)  She offered instead to send my inquiry on to the RTA staff. I boiled it down as succinctly as I could: “How will the Rampart streetcar line and the existing bus lines that duplicate it partially or entirely interact?”

A few days later I got a call back from a good-natured RTA employee who patiently tried to address my questions.  He agreed to research what he couldn’t answer immediately, then called back, as promised, to say the RTA does not yet have a “Service Plan” for integrating the streetcar with existing service. It should be ready by the end of the year; meanwhile, he said, here were some possible ways things could play out:

  • The St. Claude/Jackson Barracks (No. 88) will likely continue to run its same route, but possibly as an express between Elysian Fields and Canal.  In other words, if you’re accustomed to taking the No. 88 along St. Claude towards the CBD, for any stops between Elysian Fields and Canal, you’d have to transfer to the streetcar or walk. .
  • The Franklin (No. 57) may be re-routed from St. Claude/Rampart to North Claiborne Avenue between Franklin and Canal.   This removes one bus line to and from the CBD to lower Marigny, where I live. There has been no posting of this possibility in the No. 57 buses, and no ridership has been consulted about the change as yet.  It was unclear from the RTA representative if we ever would be. .
  • Until I told him, the rep was not aware that the streetcar also duplicates part of the Jackson-Esplanade (No. 91) run. He agreed to research the issue, but had no new information on the No. 91 when he called back.

Streetcar charm aside, and excluding questions of economics, traffic burden, crosswalk safety and the like, what impact would these potential changes have when it comes to getting around in New Orleans?

  • Riders of the Franklin bus are not aware of it, as yet, but the service they’re accustomed to would be changed — whether for better or worse is hard to tell at this point.
  • Service along St. Claude between Elysian Fields and Franklin would be cut in half, with only the No. 88 continuing to ply that route, not the No. 57.
  • The service to/from destinations between Canal and Elysian Fields would take longer if the No. 88 goes “express” and riders have to transfer to the streetcar or take a hike.

In summary, after the new streetcar is up and running, service in these areas would be the same or worse than it is now.   Even if bus service remained status quo ante, the streetcar would bring little net gain to those of us who ride public transit regularly.

So why are they building it?  From my perspective — which may be a tad biased, given where I live and my regular use of public transit — the streetcar’s most vocal supporters don’t rely on local buses; indeed, they may never have set foot in one. They give the impression at times of being unaware that the city even offers bus service, as though the Rampart streetcar will be the first public conveyance to reach an “underserved” area.

The streetcar’s other, equally rah-rah fans are the property and/or business owners along the line. They argue forthrightly that streetcars bring in people, and people bring in money, which boosts property values and stimulates new businesses.  The RTA says the same thing, and the argument is probably true. But that transforms the streetcar investment from an improvement in public transportation into a tool to hasten gentrification (for better and for worse).

Bottom line: This streetcar is not for downriver residents; it’s for tourists. It’s a 1.6-mile “tourist trolley,” not a commuter line, and it duplicates bus lines in an area already well served (at least by RTA standards.)

While there are plans for another spur down Elysian Fields to connect with the riverfront streetcars, that, too, would be a gift to tourism rather than a service of much interest to regular riders.

In further discussion, the RTA rep informed me that the powers that be have failed to broker a compromise that would allow the streetcars to cross the freight tracks at Press Street. Nor have they come up with a plan for carrying the streetcar tracks over the Industrial Canal bridge. This means that the current project cannot be envisioned as the first leg of rail service all the way to the St. Bernard Parish line.

And, really, what if those snags were overcome? What benefit is there in swapping slower, traffic-congesting streetcars for current bus service? Why the push for a fancy new duplicative line? The bus service itself is what needs maintenance and infrastructure investment.

I wait on St. Claude for my bus to work: no bench or shelter; even the “bus stop” sign has disappeared, which leaves me waving my arms to make sure the driver knows to stop.

The Rampart/St. Claude “tourist trolley” has its adherents, perhaps above all because it does not bear the stigma of poverty associated with those of us who take the bus. I’m sure it will promote development and gentrification, and passengers along this short strip will probably enjoy the ride.  But what we’re building is not a complementary and synergistic set of public transit options.

Instead, we seem to have our hearts set on a two-tiered and quite mediocre alternative: rail for tourists and locals looking for a lark, and buses for the working stiffs. We’ll gaze out the window of our buses as we lumber past. No doubt the streetcars will be quite charming to look at.

Peter Horjus, a survey statistician in international development research, is active in the Marigny community, his home for 15 years.

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About Peter Horjus

Peter Horjus, a survey statistician in international development, is an active member of the Marigny community, where he has lived since 2000.

  • ohnonononono

    This article raises great points, and this issue of not viewing new transit investments as fitting into one big transit “system” is not unique to New Orleans. DC just built a short streetcar route (their first streetcar in a half century) that also duplicates existing bus services that run along the same street, and will probably not provide for faster or more reliable service along the route, and was also seemingly built by people who never take the bus and didn’t really think about how it’d fit in. But tourists who are scared of the bus will get on the trolley.

    I think if the Rampart streetcar runs with better headways/frequencies than the bus, it’s a net gain though. And if the 88 runs as an express between Canal and Elysian, even better. The real crime was that the tracks weren’t built in the neutral ground, so the streetcar will be slow. Have the 88 be the “express” and the streetcar the “local.” And New Orleanians should DEMAND that all new routes be built in neutral ground or otherwise exclusive lanes. Being stuck in traffic isn’t “charming” when you just want to get somewhere.

  • Guest

    Unfortunately, the neutral ground along Rampart is too narrow to accommodate two lanes of streetcars so the debate was whether to dedicate a lane of traffic to the streetcar or to share a lane with traffic (which is what happened). RTA’s plan is to extend the line to across Press St. but the railroad companies are currently not having it… I agree that bus service and infrastructure needs to be greatly improved along with concrete investments such as streetcars. The lack of bus signs/benches/covered stops around town is embarrassing.

  • ohnonononono

    But didn’t NOPSI run two lanes of streetcar in the neutral ground on Rampart and St Claude until they tore it out in 1949? If it was being done then, was the neutral ground narrowed to add car lanes after? Regardless of whether it goes in a neutral ground or an exclusive lane, the idea of it not being stuck in auto traffic is the same. It’s just convenient that NOLA has all these neutral grounds left in streets which used to have streetcars running on them. It’s also why the historic preservation hoohaw over [re-]adding streetcars is so illogical… the streetcars used to be everywhere; even on narrow streets (there used to be a 1-way streetcar loop on Royal and Dauphine in the Quarter!), and they’re not detracting from historic buildings. They are historic. It’s the SUVs barrelling down little streets in New Orleans that aren’t historic.

    I’d also argue that bus stop benches and covers are most important on routes with infrequent service to less popular destinations. Running more frequent, reliable service so people aren’t waiting forever is better than giving them a cover and bench to sit and wait forever… GPS bus tracking on smartphones also helps with this, but half hour waits between buses to important destinations is more of an embarrassment than not having a shelter to wait in.

  • nickelndime

    “The real crime” is going to happen when the tourists get off the streetcar at Elysian Fields and say, “What in the hell is this?” They will take a look at Walgreen’s, the pink Gene’s Po-boys building, and what’s diagonal to that (as if “that” is not enough) and say – after the initial shock and in whatever language they speak, “Let’s get the hell out of here before we get robbed.” 01/21/2015 5:23 PM

  • nickelndime

    I like streetcars too, just not on this 1.6 mile stretch. 01/21/2015 5:28 PM

  • graspthesun

    The neutral grounds are not usable for two reasons. One was that they were narrowed for parking and driving lanes, but they also are used for underground piping and right of ways for utilities like cable and such. Putting tracks over the top of them would make them harder (if not impossible) to get to and service.

  • nickelndime

    I agree with you, Joe Morris Doss, primarily the part about how nobody should a$$ume anything. It’s my emphasis on a$$ume, not yours. 1.6 miles to nowhere. That’s what gets me. And don’t think that the walk-in businesses on this route are not worried. Who in the hell can afford a two-year “window” before the losses are so great that somebody goes out of business? What in the hell is wrong with the residents – well, I surely ain’t talking to the tourists? 01/21/2015 11:03 PM

  • nickelndime

    The neutral grounds are not useable anymore because they were narrowed because of the usual graft and corruption in this city. Somebody made millions then, and somebody is going to make millions again on this deal. Just do me a favor – on the streetcar or whatever it winds up as – just say the real destination – HELL! The tourists will not have a clue, but at least the local residents can get a good laugh at somebody else’s expense (for a change) when those tourists get off that streetcar and the local residents see the tourists’ expressions. 01/22/2015 1:08 AM

  • CeeCee

    To the people who are commenting that tourists will be shocked to get off at Elysian Fields and see that — you might be shocked to know that there are already plenty of tourists not shy of that area who are milling around on foot at various areas. There are also many tourists who like to venture outside of the quarter, and yes, find a certain charm to places like Gene’s Po-Boys & Daiquiris. New Orleans is not just attractive for the French Quarter & Garden District–different people are interested in different things. As for the streetcar, though- I think it’s a waste of good money to run a streetcar where there are already good bus lines and lots of traffic. More services for residents please!

  • nickelndime

    Hahaha! You have me laughing, CeeCee. Bottom line is that a streetcar line that suddenly stops at Elysian Fields is a waste of time, money, and an unnecessary disruption of business on St. Claude Avenue. As far as the tourists who are already milling around in the area, good for them. I love Gene’s po-boys, and there is also Lily’s Bistro which is adjacent to Gene’s (same guy/company – ca$h only). But honestly, what is a tourist going to do after getting off that streetcar? Get robbed? Walgreen’s, Sally’s Nails, footwear, visit an RSD charter school up the block…? 02/04/2015 12:12 AM

  • nickelndime

    Rampart/St. Claude is a mess. But some people (locals) are going to get displaced and some people (politically connected) are going to make more money. 02/08/2015 2:32 PM

  • Tourist trolley?…
    HECK YHEA!!!! and look what it did to the former Freret Jet- aka #12
    – 43% drop in riders after a forced transfer and wait for 19th Century thrill ride from the New Orleans Mission was added to ones commute.
    Stupid stupid stupid- and this is another fine example of why we have cycles of poverty and the crime from it.

  • nickelndime

    HELL JEAH, Andy Brott!!! LMAspO! (that’s my pet snake ASP). ASP is looking forward to seeing LaToya on Wednesday. He will be somewhere in the “complex.” ASP has a wonderful idea for a story. LaToya will play Cleopatra and ASP will just be —“himself.” 02/09/2015 1:18 PM

  • Adam

    Don’t forget the gay leather bar on the corner, too!

  • nickelndime

    How did I miss “that”? Thanks Adam. LMAspO! (that’s my pet snake ASP) 02/FRIDAY THE 13th/2015 4:55 PM