08/05/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

New Orleans to unveil Claiborne expressway options in September

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the August 5, 2013 edition.)

In community meetings last winter and spring, New Orleans residents considered options for the Claiborne expressway, a 1960s-era project that separated mostly African American neighborhoods in Treme, the Seventh Ward and vicinity. Under its Livable Claiborne Communities study, the city plans to announce options for the 2.2-mile overpass in September, before submitting them to the feds this fall.

The study is looking for ways to revitalize the section of Claiborne spanning Broad St., Rampart St., O.C. Haley Blvd. and Dryades St. from Napoleon Ave. to Elysian Fields, with respect to land use, economic growth and transportation.

"We're developing three alternative scenarios and a sub-alternative," Bill Gilchrist, the city's director of Place-Based Planning, said last week. "We're in the process of running transportation models on these alternatives and reviewing traffic behavior seen in the modeling."

Several possibilities exist for the overpass. "They include retaining the structure, to alternatives showing the progressive removal of selected ramps, to the removal of the entire elevated portion along Claiborne," Gilchrist said. Ramps along the expressway are deteriorating and will need to be repaired soon if they are kept.

"The study is showing that progressive removal of ramps with the elevated structure in place can free up property along Claiborne for other uses," Gilchrist said. "Ramps along Claiborne from U.S. 90 to St. Bernard Ave. are built directly over city blocks. Initial findings indicate that removing some of these ramps might open up land for development."

Each scenario takes into account the Rampart streetcar line, scheduled to open in 2015, and other new projects, including the University Medical Center-VA Hospital complex and the Lafitte Greenway, Gilchrist said. "The study is taking into consideration traffic patterns, including those of the port," he said.

"We'll present the alternatives as part of the study's overall recommendations at a community meeting in September, with the date to be announced soon," he said. The alternatives will be submitted to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation this fall for an initial project analysis. No time line exists for that review, according to City Hall.

The $2.8 million Claiborne study is funded with a Community Challenge Grant from the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development and a TIGER II planning grant from DOT, with matched funding by the city, local nonprofits and philanthropic groups.

Two city-appointed leadership committees have focused on neighborhood concerns and wishes. In workshops last winter, community members expressed support for and opposition to the overpass. On the one hand, the expressway is seen as an eyesore that could be replaced with a tree-lined boulevard. But if land is freed up by removing the overpass or just the ramps, and developers move in, residents fear they could be priced out of their surroundings.

"I haven't seen one recent, development project intended to help communities in this city that hasn't hurt Black people," Jerome Smith, founder and director of the Treme-based Tambourine and Fan youth group, said last week. "Armstrong Park, the new housing developments, even the Treme Community Center have displaced people."

He questions whether neighborhoods that were torn apart when the expressway was built can be made whole again. "They won't grandfather in the people who lost homes and businesses back then," Smith said. "The city's social fabric is ugly," he also said. "That's bound to affect the Claiborne project." Smith is the founder of Super Sunday, an annual parade with Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands, held in March. The area below the overpass at Claiborne and Orleans Ave. in Treme is an Indian meeting spot.

Beyond the immediate neighborhood, others worry about a teardown. On May 23 at the Port of New Orleans, the seven-member Board of Commissioners--with representatives from Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes--passed a resolution opposing the expressway's removal, saying it would hamper truck traffic. A teardown would more than double distances and travel times for truckers between the Uptown River terminals and the Inner Harbor--the site of the France Rd. terminal on the Industrial Canal and the Jourdan Rd. terminal nearby. The board said increased costs to truckers would be passed on to shippers and consumers, hurting the port's competitiveness.

"The board supports the community development mission of the Claiborne study but has an obligation to efficient freight movement by truck," Chris Bonura, industrial development director at the Port of New Orleans, said last week. About 1,500 trucks per day, or 546,000 trucks a year, haul Port of New Orleans cargo, he said. Forty-seven percent of those, or 256,000 trucks a year, use the Claiborne expressway. "And 144,000 of those trucks use Claiborne to move port cargo between the river terminals and properties that we lease for warehousing and logistics in Eastern New Orleans," he said.

The port has almost completed a study on traffic volume and routes to and from its cargo facilities, Bonura said. Some of the data from that study is already available. Research in February suggested that travel time by port trucks would grow by 150 percent and maybe more if trucks couldn't use the Claiborne expressway. If the overpass is removed, port trucks and other vehicles would be forced onto the same alternate routes, causing congestion.

Time is money in the trucking business. An "Urban Mobility Report for 2012" from the Texas Transportation Institute estimated the operating cost of a commercial truck in the New Orleans area at $86.81 per hour.

From its study to date, the port believes that pollution and noise from trucks, traveling on a boulevard with other vehicles, at slower than overpass speeds and stopping at lights, would reduce the livability of surrounding neighborhoods.

Residents of the Eighth and Ninth Wards and New Orleans East worry about accessing emergency health care without the expressway. "New Orleans East has a clinic and construction of the new hospital has started," Brad Ott, director of Advocates for Louisiana Public Health Care, said last week. The New Orleans East Hospital, replacing the Katrina-damaged Pendleton Memorial Methodist, is slated to open next summer. "At this time, people needing emergency care in New Orleans East and all over the city go to Interim LSU Hospital" on Perdido St. near the Superdome, Ott said. Without the expressway, that trip from New Orleans East would take a little longer on a restored boulevard, he said. But creative solutions, such as using helicopters, could save time in emergencies, he also said.

Tuan Nguyen, executive director of Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp., said life without the expressway life would be tough for New Orleans East residents heading downtown and to the West Bank for work and other activities. "The expressway's a little older than I am, and my family's always used it," he said. "The city's Vietnamese American communities are in New Orleans East and the West Bank so there's lots of back and forth between family and friends." He said some people rely on the Claiborne expressway for hurricane evacuation. And, he said, Slidell residents commuting to downtown New Orleans depend on the overpass.

Nguyen shudders to think what traffic would be like on surface roads without the expressway. He attended Eleanor McMain Secondary School on South Claiborne. "No matter what route I took home to New Orleans East, it was always congested in the afternoon," he said. Echoing the port's concerns, Nguyen said surface roads near the overpass aren't suitable for large trucks traveling to the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, Slidell and other points east. end