Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Update on St. Charles Avenue Streetcar: accessibility and precision in language

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 11:07 AM

Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

In a September cover story on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar Gambit reported that the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, the privately managed public body responsible for every bus and streetcar in the city, had made little progress in making the historic line accessible to disabled riders.

NORTA claimed, however, that it had formed a "committee" to address the problem. Here was its statement on that:

  

"The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar Line and the Perley Thomas Streetcars that service that line are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Prior to any modifications being made to the line or the streetcars, the Regional Transit Authority must seek authorization from governing bodies. The Regional Transit Authority has formed a committee to research the feasibility of moving toward accessibility on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line. Members of the committee have discussed critical considerations including legality, operational capacity, safety concerns, and financial implications. All of these considerations are being explored fully prior to any formal action being taken. The RTA is committed to serving all members of the community and offers ADA paratransit services to qualifying riders. Additionally, all other RTA vehicles, with the exception of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, are fully accessible."

When asked for some specifics about the committee — its name, its members, when it held its public meetings, whether those were ever announced — NORTA spokeswoman Patrice Mercadel replied with the following supplemental statement:

"The statement provided constitutes the present position of the RTA as we move forward with exploring the feasibility of St. Charles Avenue Line accessibility."

Today, at the end of NORTA's board of commissioners meeting, I found out the problem. NORTA CEO Justin Augustine III told me that the (repeated) use of the word "committee" was, in fact, a misnomer.

(More after the jump)

The alleged "committee," meaning a public body that holds public meetings and publishes its agenda, minutes, members, etc. was never a committee at all — which is not to say it didn't exist — Augustine said.

It was an internal research/working/technical group. Or something. He actually wasn't 100 percent sure what to call it.

He did know it's being headed up by NORTA Risk Manager Marc Popkin.

"They're looking at, what are the issues we have to deal with? What are the obstacles?" Augustine said, adding that there are potentially quite a few issues: engineering, road improvements, and, certainly cost. NORTA, he said, wants to get an idea of the size of a St. Charles accessibility project before it goes to the state or federal government.

"If we really had to, I'll just go ahead and say, 'fix' this issue, what's it going to cost? That's what this group is looking at," he said.

The cover story also reported that NORTA's one-time claim that it was prevented from making the improvements because of the line's status as a National Historic Place was false. NORTA officials were aware of that at the time, even as the authority was still making the claim on its web site.

That has changed now too. Here's the former wording on NORTA's Accessibility page:

"The green streetcars that travel the St. Charles Avenue line do not contain accessibility equipment. The green St. Charles Avenue streetcars are considered a National Historic Landmark. This federal status protects our treasured, historic streetcar line, but it also means that by law the RTA cannot update the streetcars with the modern equipment needed to make them accessible to disabled riders. The red streetcars that travel on Canal Street and on the Riverfront line are accessible to disabled riders."

And here's what it says now:


"The green St. Charles Avenue streetcars that travel the St. Charles Avenue line do not contain accessibility equipment. Modification of these historic streetcars is limited and requires consultation with and the prior approval of the State Historic Preservation Office. RTA makes every effort to provide alternatives for the St. Charles line."

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