Posted on: January 28 2013"If New Orleans can invest more in things like streetcars, that accentuate all this and grab full advantage of it, it's going to do really well."
January 26, 2013
By Andrew Vanacore, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
It's not quite on schedule and not quite under budget, but the latest spur of New Orleans' iconic streetcar system, barring some unforeseen holdup, will be rolling before kickoff.
Yes, the traffic quagmire that has enveloped Loyola Avenue for the past six months or so has lifted, the orange cones and cement barriers have disappeared and apple-red streetcars should begin carrying riders between Union Passenger Terminal and Canal Street on Monday afternoon, just a few days before 73,000 football fans gather a block away at the Superdome for Super Bowl XLVII.
If a major tourism event set the deadline, though, it's what happens after the 49ers and the Ravens leave town that will justify the undertaking or not.
City officials are already giving the streetcar expansion credit for a spurt of economic development along Loyola Avenue. And with plans to continue building, they're betting on the notion that streetcars aren't just a draw for sightseers any more but for a generation young professionals whose ambition is to live downtown without a car rather than in the suburbs with a garage.
"What people want today is a walkable city with history and authenticity, and New Orleans is it," said David Dixon, a consultant with the Boston firm Goody Clancy who helped developed the city's master plan after Hurricane Katrina. "If New Orleans can invest more in things like streetcars, that accentuate all this and grab full advantage of it, it's going to do really well."
As in other urban areas, streetcars once ran along many of the city's main corridors before buses began taking over and finally relegated streetcars to the leafy St. Charles Avenue line, at least until service resumed on Canal Street just before Katrina.
Experts like Dixon have been watching a resurgence of streetcars around the country based on population growth in downtown areas and the growing expense of owning a car. Places like Portland Ore. and Baltimore are picking streetcars as a relatively cheap mass transit option -- at least compared to subway or light rail -- whose permanence can anchor development in a way that bus lines can't.
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It's a set of circumstances that has even has the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority exploring the idea of building more streetcars, which the agency fabricates itself, and selling them to other cities to generate cash.
Locally, the RTA is focused on plans for bringing a streetcar line back to St. Claude Avenue and the perennial hunt for federal dollars to fund more tenuous projects, including a spur along Convention Center Boulevard and the long-talked-of light-rail line that would run from downtown to the airport and on to Baton Rouge.
Justin Augustine, the RTA's general manager, says the Loyola line has provided valuable lessons, particularly about what can turn up underground when crews start construction. Originally, the RTA estimated it would complete the Loyola line by May 2012, and Augustine said he expected a total cost of about $50 million, drawing on a $45 million federal grant. Ultimately, after clearing away obstacles, the agency finished up substantial construction work on Jan. 14 with a price tag of about $53 million.
"New Orleans is an old city and you never know what you're going to find until you start digging underground," Augustine said. "A cypress tree -- you should have seen this thing. We had to bring in special equipment."
He is not expecting easier conditions on St. Claude Avenue, running along the city's oldest neighborhood. The RTA plans to begin gathering input at community meetings in March and finish planning the project in June, but Augustine noted old French fortifications in the area and a plaque at the St. Jude Shrine behind the French Quarter marking the buried remains of 19th century yellow fever victims, which could both pose obstacles. Who knows?
The U.S. Department of Transportation is another uncertainty. The RTA reckons it has enough money to extend streetcar service along St. Claude from Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue but not as far as Poland Avenue, as some had hoped. The agency will need federal money to go further or start planning a new line to the Convention Center.
And federal dollars, even after they've been secured, often come with strings attached. It's in part a quirk of the particular grant that New Orleans won for the Loyola streetcar line that shaped how the project turned out. The money was earmarked for so-called "intermodal" transportation concepts, meaning ideas that linked different modes of travel.
Hence, the Loyola streetcar line terminates at a combined Greyhound and Amtrak station more notable for its Art Deco interior and vintage arcade games than its traffic.
Augustine sees a more visionary rationale, however. Amtrak, he pointed out, uses only five of the station's 10 rail lines. The rest might one day carry passengers along a light-rail connection to Louis International Airport, the River Parishes and the state capital -- provided an investment by the federal government of several hundred million dollars.
Whether that happens or not, local officials do seem to have a well-cultivated relationship with the powers that will decide. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was in town for the Loyola streetcar groundbreaking, is scheduled to attend the line's ceremonial opening on Monday.
Augustine has already been promoting the new line's economic impact as a rationale for further investment. A presentation he gave to federal officials at the White House recently included a rundown of development projects completed or planned along Loyola Avenue since planning began for the streetcar line, although some projects, including the Hyatt Regency renovation and the South Market District, have also received tax breaks from the city as incentives to locate downtown.
"It creates jobs, it creates a sense of livability, it creates connectivity" Augustine said. "Success begets success."