In February, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) announced it received a $45 million federal stimulus package grant — a grant that'll completely fund a brand new streetcar line running from Canal Street to the Union Passenger Terminal, a 1.5-mile route along Loyola Avenue. But it won't link with the St. Charles Avenue line just a few blocks away. The $45 million is paying only for the 1.5-mile route (roughly $8.5 million a foot), to be completed in 2012. The RTA wants to supplement the route with a 4-mile French Quarter route and a 2-mile stretch on Convention Center Boulevard. Those projects come with a $165 million price tag. RTA hopes to borrow $75 million and use a 30-year bond backed by an existing one-cent sales tax, which still leaves a $90 million hole to pay for mass transit in a corridor servicing tourist, not residential, ridership.
What it won't do is link nearby neighborhoods — a line that would extend down Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue to the Bywater — to the Quarter.
"Who's actually going to ride the streetcar from the Union Passenger Terminal to Canal Street? There's almost no one," says Jeffrey Schwartz, who founded the transit advocacy group Transport for NOLA, which hosts Transit Week this week to promote mass transit in New Orleans. "The Quarter, Treme, Bywater, St. Roch (and) Marigny are primed for transit."
Schwartz helped draw up that RTA funding request for the streetcar line, but a proposal to extend that Loyola line to the primarily residential Treme, Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods was ignored.
"The problem is that they were never going to get the full funding for that Loyola-Rampart-St. Claude segment," he says. "It's kind of unfortunate that the one that got funded is the Loyola corridor, which has no dependent riders."
Schwartz founded Transport for NOLA in 2008 to promote and help improve mass transit in New Orleans with a holistic vision, from improved bike lanes to expanded bus service. With Transit Week, which kicks off Nov. 15 and runs through Nov. 20, Schwartz hopes to increase ridership and awareness through guerrilla marketing and online promotion. The week culminates in a two-hour mad dash scavenger hunt in the Warehouse District starting at the American Institute of Architects (1000 St. Charles Ave.) on Saturday, Nov. 20.
"We're trying to get people to commit to taking transit as much as they can for a week," he says. "The goal is for people to familiarize themselves with transit and have it not be such a foreign thing," whether that's jumping on a streetcar or finding the nearest bus schedule — or at least knowing where the nearest stop is.
While Transport for NOLA's long-term goal is to help increase access to transportation across social and economic spectrums, Schwartz says, "There seems to be a lack of recognition on behalf of city leaders and a lot of the nonprofits working in areas that would benefit from affordable transit, like affordable housing (activists), things like that. There's not a vision for transit."
Perhaps that vision may be coming into focus. Last week during the New Orleans City Council's budget hearings, RTA manager Justin Augustine addressed the organization's budget needs and plans — but Council members also voiced what they'd like to see: more mass transit options for the entire city. District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said bus lines need to close loops to incorporate more riders, and Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson said she'd like to see more of the Lil' Easy Line (a minibus service which was discontinued in Lakeview and Gentilly but continues in the 9th Ward). Council President Arnie Fielkow also weighed in: "We've just got to dream a little bit bigger."
Augustine said the RTA plans to expand bus service in Mid-City and also intends to buy more articulated buses — the large "bendy" buses now running on Broad Street that can carry 62 seated and 40 standing passengers — and introduce them to other neighborhoods, including Algiers. "Make sure you have a bike rack on there," Palmer added.
After Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures destroyed 200 of the RTA's 370 buses, the city was left with only a handful, some donated from Illinois and not up to par with the pre-Katrina fleet. Ridership plummeted. Temporary solutions like the Lil' Easy lines were only that: temporary. But the RTA says ridership is increasing: Last year the transit authority's ridership numbers reached more than one-third of its pre-Katrina level, and the numbers continue to grow. Ridership is up 20 percent from 2009, according to Stefan Marks, director of planning and scheduling, but he says the real challenge now is keeping up with the demand. Marks also says the RTA is focusing on improving transit in high demand areas, including Broad Street and Magazine Street.
Schwartz says the latest plans for the streetcar lines support the tourist-heavy French Quarter and aren't feeding the neighborhoods that depend on mass transit.
"Why wouldn't you want people to take a streetcar to a Saints game?" Schwartz says. "You're going to have streetcars in the street at Loyola (Avenue) stuck in the same car traffic instead of having a line of streetcars moving freely in the neutral ground as a way for people to get out of a Saints game."
There has been some progress, he says, thanks to the city's hiring of Veolia Transportation, the private company that's been managing RTA since 2008. He says Transport for NOLA is able to communicate with RTA members and discuss transit and policy ideas. There also is room for small improvements, he says, including wheelchair accessibility for some streetcars and making rides faster and more efficient by giving streetcars the right-of-way in traffic rather than making them stop.
"The city can have these things," he says. "Parts of New Orleans are as dense or more dense than Boston or San Francisco. If you look at the corridors, the neighborhoods, they're totally supportive of transit. The trick is, how do you get the politicians ... to start talking about it?"
That trick, Schwartz says, begins with treating streetcars like transit options, not just tourist destinations. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is "one of the proverbial 'streetcar suburbs,'" Schwartz says. "Most of New Orleans is ideal in its density, walkability and vibrancy, like lots of the great American and European cities. But it's operated as a 'heritage' route, as opposed to an actual transit route. ... Eventually, the RTA made decisions like a lot of cities, where streetcars were taken out and buses put in, but that's what everybody was doing at the time."
Starting in the 1800s, streetcar services grew to cover hundreds of miles in New Orleans with more than a dozen different lines through dozens of neighborhoods. Those tracks were later removed with the introduction of buses and cars, leaving the Carrollton, St. Charles and Canal Street lines covering only a dozen or so miles.
When it launched in 2008, Transport for NOLA introduced a bold proposal: light rail.
Schwartz and his group of self-described "transit geeks" drew up a map depicting the familiar colored squiggles and boldface fonts of a subway map — the proposed "NOLA Overground" stops at each historic neighborhood and then some, with service extending from Tulane Avenue to the airport, Chalmette to the Northshore and everywhere in between. "A lot of thought (was) put into what lines to show and where they went, even as far down as identifying the names of the stops and how that identifies the culture and history of a particular neighborhood," Schwartz says. But he acknowledges the city might not be ready just yet.
"That map and the push to do Transport for NOLA was meant as a conversation starter: 'What do you want to see in transit in the city?' Light rail is sexier than buses, so we thought (this was) the best way to start," he says. "The name is a play on Transport for London, with the idea of transit being a service like a utility that everyone has a right to."
Visit www.transportfornola.org for more information about Transit Week events.