The days appear numbered for the well-worn Canal Street ferry terminal after the New Orleans City Council unanimously gave the go-ahead Thursday (March 22) to tear it down. But that decision came with a major concession from city leaders and public transit managers.
Key to the vote was a promise that any new terminal would be accompanied by a footbridge over railroad tracks that separate the ferry landing from downtown.
Opponents of the new terminal design had demanded it. The council acquiesced, vowing in a resolution to build the bridge. Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration, the Regional Transit Authority, and its private manager, Transdev, pledged as well.
Resolutions, however, don't have the force of law. And the lack of a footbridge was just one of the complaints Westbank residents, transit advocates and river commuters have leveled against Transdev's proposal to replace the 37-year-old terminal.
At stake is a project Landrieu has called essential to redeveloping the east bank riverfront. Architects and city officials must now juggle the razing, then design and construction of a new terminal, under a shroud of financial uncertainty. The entire project lacks full funding. And what money there is -- $15 million in federal transit grants awarded under President Barack Obama -- could be in peril under President Donald Trump.
Trouble for the project began when Transdev and project managers unveiled an admittedly half-finished design for a new terminal at a public gathering in January.
Critics pounced immediately on its lack of both a pedestrian bridge and a canopy from the terminal to the barge where commuters could board the boats.
Fast forward two months and council members agreed Thursday the footbridge should have been part of the original renderings.
"We all acknowledged and recognized that a ball was dropped. A footbridge should have been included," Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey said. "It's not the time for finger-pointing. I think we're all united on the same page that (a footbridge is) important to the community. It's important to the city."
Councilman Jason Williams went so far as to apologize.
"It should have been a part of their original package. That's a fact," he said. "Nobody is going to run away from that. I apologize that it wasn't. I wish I had caught that."
The footbridge cannot be folded into the terminal project because it would be a deviation from the original terms that secured the federal grants, Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said. Instead it would have to be built as a separate, parallel plan. Berni said the city is fronting the money to start designing the bridge while it lobbies state lawmakers to allocate capital outlay dollars to build it. Manning Architects, the terminal's designer, has begun drafting plans for it, he said.
The estimated cost to build it is between $2.6 and $3 million.
With the Legislature searching to sew up a $304 million budget hole, that money may have to come at the expense of other projects in New Orleans, he indicated.
"The ferry terminal both on the east bank and the Westbank have had pending capital outlay requests before the Legislature for the last several years," Berni said. "Our legislative delegation has not funded them. To move a project of something that has existing funding, they would have to cannibalize or take away from the existing project that does have funding. So there are a number of Westbank projects that, if this is the number one priority, to do that. That's the quickest way to move this forward."
That frustrated former councilwoman and transit advocate Kristin Gisleson Palmer.
"We should not take money from any existing project," she told the council, later adding that the bridge should take precedence over the new terminal building. "The citizens do not want or need an expensive building. We need a bridge to get over the tracks."
Urgency to spend the federal money before it can be revoked in part spurred the council's decision. Trump has declared New Orleans uncooperative with his immigrationenforcement policies. He has also threatened to pull federal funding from cities that continue to be uncooperative according to his administration.
Trump "has said that if there's a way to cut federal funding to cities like us, he will do it," Councilman Jason Williams said. "So any proposal to negotiate with D.C. is not a good one. Whatever we need to do for the people of New Orleans we need to do it within New Orleans. We do not need to go back to D.C. and risk losing the money that has already been allocated."
Should that $15 million in federal funding come through, the terminal project would still be about $17 million short, Transdev officials and project managers have said.
Sharonda Williams, chairwoman of the RTA's board of commissioners, said she expected the terminal to be razed in late July or early August. It must first pass federal environmental and historic preservation inspections that are underway.
Criticism of the project has remained steady for weeks. Residents complained that much of the planning was done without public input.
"They have waited until the last minute to include riders or residents so that they could tell us they had no clear option or choice," Gisleson Palmer said.
The City Planning Commission last month deadlocked over recommending the demolition permit, mostly over concerns with the proposed design. That angst showed no signs of abating Thursday.
Ramsey, for one, took it personally.
"I've heard comments that this is being built for tourists. That's crap," she said, adding "Any conversation or any comment that includes any indication that I am not protecting my district or protecting Algiers, can kindly leave because I know the work I've done for Algiers for my district and that I'll continue to do."