(This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the July 11, 2011 issue.)
New Orleans--never a candidate for an underground, subway system--has had on-and-off success with public transit. But as roads became clogged and full of fumes in the post-Katrina era, the city and entrepreneurs have explored ways to expand streetcar lines, make buses greener and restore ferry service on Lake Pontchartrain.
Urban planners in other parts of the nation hope to bring back streetcars and are looking at the Crescent City as a model.
A major southern hub for Amtrak, the city's train station should be connected to streetcars soon. Dominic Moncada, spokesman for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority and Veolia Transportation, which oversees RTA operations, said "construction starts this summer on the federally funded, streetcar line from Union Passenger Terminal along Loyola Ave. to Canal St., and it could be finished by next summer." The RTA was awarded a $45 million TIGER grant from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation last year to extend streetcar service from the train station.
And last month, the RTA was given a $400,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration to develop a streetcar-maintenance training program.
Moncada said "next summer, contractors plan to begin working on the French Quarter expansion line, running from Canal Street along North Rampart Street down St. Claude Avenue and up to Press Street." That line will skirt the edge of the French Quarter, and a segment of it will veer off and head down Elysian Fields, connecting to the existing, Riverfront streetcar line. "The French Quarter-Marigny area will be enclosed by streetcars," he said.
The RTA would like to extend the St. Claude line up to Poland Ave. near the Industrial Canal, and is in talks with Norfolk Southern Railway for permission to cross a rail line at Press Street, Moncada said.
Meanwhile, "the Rampart expansion up to St. Claude, along with the Elysian Fields tie, is slated to cost $79 million and will be funded by sales-tax revenue bonds," he said.
Moncada noted that gasoline prices have risen in recent years, and said ridership on public transit is up, though not back to pre-Katrina levels. While more people are taking streetcars than before the storm, fewer residents are traveling by bus.
"With these new streetcar lines, many service-industry and other workers will find it easier to get to their jobs," Moncada said. Ahead of the new lines, the Loyola, North Rampart and St. Claude thoroughfares and the St. Roch neighborhood are already seeing revitalization, with stores and businesses opening, he said. The new streetcars will be part of downtown's makeover, which includes the Hyatt Regency Hotel renovation; a sports-entertainment complex in the Benson Tower near the Superdome; the South Market District apartment-retail development; the opening of Rouse's Supermarket on Baronne St. this fall; and the expanded, biosciences district.
On the Marigny-St. Roch border, the New Orleans Healing Center at St. Claude and St. Roche Avenues will eventually house 20 businesses and organizations, and officially opens in late August.
Chuck Perkins, co-owner of a performance hall called Cafe Istanbul at the Healing Center, said "the new streetcar line isn't just for tourists. It will help residents in this area get to work and shopping and do their errands downtown." The transit line will encourage neighborhood renewal, he said.
Moncada said the new lines will use air-conditioned, red streetcars, stored at the RTA's main office on Canal St. Green streetcars, used on the St. Charles-Carrollton line, are housed at the Willow St. barn uptown, and they're in the process of being refurbished. Parts are being replaced, interiors are being refinished and exteriors are being reglossed.
"Many of our streetcars were built 100 years ago, and the RTA technicians use the same maintenance techniques from back then," Moncada said. "Their skills need to be passed on to a new generation, and RTA wants to keep the work local. We will be working with Delgado Community College to develop a streetcar trade program for students from here and other cities." Several American cities want to revive streetcars and are looking at New Orleans, which has the nation's oldest, continuously operating system--the St. Charles line begun in 1835-- he said.
City buses have already undergone changes for the better. "In the last four years, we replaced most of our bus fleet with biodiesel engines, and the heaviest passenger routes now have new hybrid, articulated or accordion buses that carry more passengers," Moncada said. Some of the Mid City and New Orleans East routes are heavily traveled. "Carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced, and the system is a lot greener now," he said. Street cars have been running on electricity since 1923 and have always been fairly green.
After the RTA negotiated a contract with Veolia Transportation to operate the city's transit system in 2008, Lil' Easy minibuses were introduced in 2009 in Gentilly, Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward.
In the early 1900s, ferries ran regularly across Lake Pontchartrain between New Orleans and Mandeville, and the push is on to revive them. Pontchartrain Express Inc. in Mandeville hopes to start ferry service this fall.
"Right now, we're waiting on our permits from the state Dept. of Natural Resources, the Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge and build a dock at Sunset Point in Mandeville near the Causeway," said Captain Johan Schild at Pontchartrain Express. "That may take some time, then we'll have our ferry delivered from Los Angeles and it could be ready for passengers this fall."
He continued, saying "we can carry 600 to 700 passengers a day at most, running eight trips on a big yacht-like ferry that's 82-feet long and going 36 miles per hour at top speed." Savings in car emissions should be considerable. "Based on eight trips a day, you could reduce CO2 emissions by a projected 400,000 pounds a year," he said. Shuttle buses in New Orleans, waiting at the lake dock, will take ferry passengers downtown, uptown and to Metairie.
And if the first ferry goes well, the company plans to start another service from Slidell. "Almost every day, commuters are delayed because of accidents and tieups on I-10 to and from Slidell," he said.
Schild said "our ticket price will be $12.50 one way, which is reasonable considering the $3.00 Causeway toll, gasoline and downtown parking, and wear and tear on your car. A lot of commuters don't like the stress of driving the Causeway everyday, and I'm told some people get professional counseling for Causeway phobia."
Schild noted that commuters want to use their time more productively. "For instance, you have lawyers crossing the lake because of cases in Covington court house or federal court in New Orleans, and they could review their notes on the ferry," he said.
Bicyclists from New Orleans, riding the trail from Slidell to Mandeville to Abita Springs, can put their bikes on the ferry, he said.
As for service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the LA Swift coach buses that began in Oct. 2005 for post-Katrina, intercity travel have been extended through mid-2012, with a $2.3 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, state officials said early this month. Seven-day-a-week, bus service will continue, and the fare will remain $5.00 one way.
But don't look for a rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge to be built anytime soon because Governor Jindal opposes it on the basis of cost. Jodi Conachen, Louisiana Dept. of Transportation and Development spokeswoman, said "the initial construction cost for the line is estimated at $300 million. An independent, rail study gave planning officials an estimate that the state's annual loss on operating costs would be between $15 million and $20 million." Federal dollars are not available for operating costs, she said.
Business and community leaders have argued that an intercity rail line would benefit the region economically and culturally, and would be another way for New Orleans residents to head north when hurricanes approach.