Posted on: January 25 2011
New line would loop Quarter, go to Press
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
By Frank Donze
More than 20 years after transit officials began exploring the idea of bringing streetcar service to Faubourg Marigny, Treme and St. Roch via the North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue corridor, the project is getting the green light.
Regional Transit Authority Chairwoman Barbara Major said Monday that she expects to win board approval today to complete design work on the proposal in the hopes of debuting the new line three years from now.
With more than $90 million in hand to build it, RTA executives are optimistic they can begin construction by midsummer of next year.
Plans call for the so-called French Quarter loop to travel along North Rampart and then St. Claude between Canal Street and Press Street, with a 1.2-mile spur on Elysian Fields Avenue that would connect with the Riverfront streetcar line at Esplanade Avenue.
Current plans call for the tracks to run in the street on both sides of the neutral ground.
A second phase, which the RTA has no money for right now, would extend the line to Poland Avenue in the Upper 9th Ward.
That addition calls for streetcar tracks to cross the railroad tracks at ground level at the intersection of St. Claude and Press Street. Norfolk Southern Railway, which has final say in the matter, vehemently opposes the approach, citing safety concerns.
City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represents the neighborhoods that would be served by the streetcar line, said she fully supports extending service to Poland Avenue and plans to lead discussions with the railroad.
Major said she is committed to the extension and thinks that with Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration and the City Council on board, the money will be found and the railroad will acquiesce.
"My thing is they (the railroad) run through my city,'' Major said. "I would think the city has some negotiating power with them.''
As the RTA prepares to break ground on a new streetcar line along Loyola Avenue from the Union Passenger Terminal to Canal Street, Major said commercial development, including renovation of the shuttered Hyatt Hotel, is already under way along the route, and more is on the way.
She said she is confident the RTA and City Hall can persuade the railroad to partner with the city to spark similar activity along the Rampart Street corridor.
"It's definitely going to spur economic development in that community,'' Major said, "particularly for small businesses. We're not looking at big box stores or any of that. But I can imagine everything from coffee shops to ice cream parlors.''
About a year ago, the Obama administration awarded the RTA a $45 million grant that will pay the full cost for the Loyola Avenue streetcar line. The agency plans to begin construction in June and complete the project by April 2012.
Recently, the White House denied the RTA's application for an additional $50 million that would have bridged the gap in a proposed budget for the Rampart Street plan and a third new streetcar line along Convention Center Boulevard.
On Tuesday, the RTA board will effectively put the Convention Center project on the back burner and commit all available money to the French Quarter loop.
The bulk of the money will come from a bond sale last fall that netted the agency $79.4 million. The RTA also has about $13 million in a reserve account.
That total would fall short based on an estimate prepared several years that put the price tag for the French Quarter loop at $115 million. But RTA General Manager Justin Augustine said with construction firms hungry for work, the old projection might be too high.
"The price of steel and materials has come down significantly,'' Augustine said. "And if we move now, hopefully we'll get an even better price break as a result of the slow economy."
Other routes envisioned
Even though a Republican-controlled House is demanding widespread cuts in federal spending, transit officials are optimistic that Washington could be a source of more aid in the near future.
Typically, the Federal Transit Administration awards grants at the start of a project. But if the RTA can demonstrate its ability to bankroll the French Quarter loop alone, Augustine said the agency might be in a position to secure federal dollars for the second phase.
Major said her wish list doesn't end there.
She also would like to eventually extend the Loyola Avenue line from the Union Passenger Terminal along Howard Avenue, where it could tie in with the St. Charles Avenue line at Carondelet Street.
Down the road, other possibilities include an extension along Poland Avenue to Dauphine Street, the site of a proposed cruise ship terminal, and another one that would provide streetcar service on Elysian Fields all the way to the Lakefront.
While streetcar ridership has been very healthy on the newest line on Canal Street, which services business areas, Major said it is time for the RTA to shift its attention to neighborhoods where people live.
"From what I've learned being here, streetcars bring with them a sense of safety, a sense of culture and fun,'' she said. "It's public transportation at its best."