01/26/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2013

New Orleans Launches Its Loyola Streetcar, With Another Leg Awaited

Spacious, solar-lit shelters on the new Loyola Ave. streetcar line, opening on Jan. 28, will accommodate Super Bowl fans in New Orleans. But elsewhere, commuters huddle under less protection. Bus and streetcar service, shelters and ridership have improved since Veolia Transportation partnered with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority in 2008. Riders nonetheless grumble about the RTA doing a lot for tourists. They want to see neighborhoods better connected and await the Loyola line's expansion up North Rampart, a move that's already planned, followed by a leg along St. Claude in the Ninth Ward -- which isn't funded yet.

Just about everyone likes to be near a streetcar line. At Southern Costume Co., two blocks off Loyola Ave. at Lafayette St., office manager Chanel Guada said "the new Loyola line is expected to bring pedestrian traffic to this area and that can only help business. The area doesn't have much free parking." She was inconvenienced by a change in her commuter bus route during the Loyola car line's construction but said "things will get better."

Meanwhile, on St. Claude Ave., residents and businesses hope the streetcar will come their way. Cyrena Jackson, pharmaceutical doctor at Med Pro Pharmacy on St. Claude at Congress, said "we need it. Buses run every 15 minutes on St. Claude before and after school, but waits can be 30 to 45 minutes in the middle of the day. We have lots of people without cars in this area and a lot of elderly. Many younger people bike or just get out and walk."

Jackson said a streetcar would help existing businesses on St. Claude and attract new ones, making the corridor more vibrant. Increased activity would make it safer. "But we're usually the last part of the city to get anything," she added.

The new streetcar line on Loyola links the Union Passenger train terminal, the post office, the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, City Hall, the public library and downtown hospitals, and does more for commuters and residents than one that was planned for Convention Blvd.

Rachel Heiligman, executive director of transit riders' advocacy group Ride New Orleans, noted that in 2009 the RTA announced a streetcar-extension program focused on building a line on the Convention Blvd. neutral grounds. "That proposal would have served tourists over residents and duplicated service that the Riverfront streetcar line offers to the Convention Center," she said. NORTA opened the Riverfront line in1988 and expanded it in 1997.

The prospect of a Convention Blvd. line spurred the founding of Ride New Orleans, Heiligman said. "Advocates convinced the RTA to shift its support to a Loyola Ave., N. Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue line," she said.

The RTA applied for a federal TIGER grant to start the project at Union Passenger Terminal and run it to Elysian Fields Ave. That move, Heiligman said, met the U.S. Dept. of Transportation's requirements for funding TIGER projects that make "multi-modal connections and have regional impact."

In early 2010, RTA won a $45 million TIGER grant paying for the Loyola Ave. phase of the streetcar extension. The line links the train terminal and Greyhound Bus station with Canal's streetcars, buses and transfer points, Heiligman noted.

Patrice Bell Mercadel, spokeswoman for Veolia Transportation and the Regional Transit Authority, said the cost of building the Loyola line was $52 million as of Jan. 15. In addition to the $45 million TIGER II grant, sources included $5 million from a local-share, contingency fund required on receipt of the TIGER grant and $2 million funded by RTA Series 2010 Sales Tax bonds.

Heiligman said Phase 2 of the streetcar project will run up N. Rampart to Elysian Fields eventually, funded by local sales of $75 million in bonds. But she noted that."RTA applications for TIGER III and IV grants to extend the Loyola car line up St. Claude were denied in 2011 and 2012, respectively, leaving the RTA without a clear way to fund the streetcar into the Ninth Ward."

Bell Mercadel said "Phase 2 of the streetcar-expansion program is funded by the $75 million RTA sales tax bond series 2010." The bonds, in fact, sold for more than $75 million and are valued at $79 million. She confirmed that Phase 2 construction will originate at N. Rampart and Canal St. and terminate at N. Rampart and Elysian Fields. That spur is currently in the design phase, she said.

As for St. Claude Ave., Bell Mercadel said "the RTA continues to seek funding for future rail expansions."

Heiligman said "with the $45 million TIGER grant and the $75 million in local bonds, funds still aren't enough to run the streetcar to Poland Ave." on St. Claude, a project the corridor's residents consider vital for development.

Heiligman said Ride continues to organize community meetings along N. Rampart and St. Claude for the next legs of the streetcar to make sure service is efficient. "We're working with City Council Member Kristin Palmer's office to explore funding opportunities to get the third phase of the project -- Elysian Ave. to Poland Ave on St. Claude funded," she said. "At the moment, we're exploring the U.S. DOT's Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, loan program, along with Tax Increment Financing districts, parking taxes and pretty much anything to fund the line to Poland Ave."

Some residents have asked why $45 million was spent on a streetcar project when some of that money could have been used to improve bus service. But Heiligman said TIGER grants can only fund capital projects and not operating costs, such as more drivers.

As for the Loyola line, new shelters that are quite large by local standards have been built. "Loyola has five state-of-the-art, solar-powered shelters," Mercadel Bell said. New shelters on Canal St. are roomy and solar-lit. Meanwhile, on some other city routes riders overflow shelters or have no protection at all from bad weather.

A major bus transfer point on Canal St. between Marais and N. Robertson has little shelter or seating. Heiligman said "the RTA moved the transfer point there when the previous one at Elk Place and Tulane was displaced by construction of the Loyola streetcar. Last year, the RTA proposed keeping the transfer point between Marais and N. Robertson permanently but riders complained it was too far from the heart of the CBD and had little, supporting infrastructure." After riders spoke out at a public hearing in October, saying they'd been inconvenienced, the idea was nixed for further study.

Public transit riders has grown in number since Katrina. Mercadel Bell said "Marais and N. Robertson, which is a temporary relocation of the Elk Place stop, has between 5,000 to 6,000 boardings per weekday. That is cumulative for 14 bus lines and three streetcar lines, all traveling and stopping there."

Canal and Carondelet, where the St Charles streetcar line starts, is also busy, with about 2,000 boardings and deboardings per day, Mercadel Bell said.

Heiligman said "regardless of whether the main transfer point is located at Elk Place or at Marais-N. Robertson, Ride New Orleans will continue pushing for next-bus arrival signage, kiosks for buying fare cards before boarding, more seating, and large, canopied areas for sun-and-rain shelter."

On the St. Charles streetcar line, repair work has been halted temporarily and cars will run their full route for the next several weeks. "The St. Charles cross-tie maintenance program, currently underway, is expected to be complete in first-quarter 2014," Mercadel Bell said. "But RTA will suspend maintenance work on St. Charles this Jan. 20 through Feb. 13 to allow full access to the streetcar." The neutral ground will be free of equipment during Mardi Gras parades. Mercadel Bell said riders should check for parade-related changes in RTA service.

For 170 years, St. Charles was the oldest, continuously operating streetcar line in the world until Katrina struck in 2005. The line reopened in mid-2008 after repairs, and operates today with virtually the same cars and infrastructure that it did in the1920s. The RTA hopes to fund a spur connecting the St. Charles streetcar to the Loyola line eventually.

The RTA Board of Commissioners signed a management contract with Veolia Transportation in 2008 and formed a public-private partnership with the company in 2009. Veolia Transportation, based in Chicago, is the top, private North American, public-transit operator and is a subsidiary of Veolia Environnement in France.

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Jan. 21, 2013 edition.