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

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Jed Horne

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

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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