Weeks following the completion and unveiling of a new streetcar line on Loyola Avenue before an audience in town for the Super Bowl, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) presented the first designs — and problems — facing another streetcar line planned for a downriver route.
On March 6, RTA officials and engineers revealed the first glimpse of the anticipated streetcar connecting the Central Business District to the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. According to current plans, the new streetcar won't run on the neutral ground but on a shared lane — which becomes streetcar-only during "peak" traffic. The transit corridor's overhaul also will include a bike lane — though in one direction only, heading from the Marigny into the CBD.
"We've tried to incorporate as many of your questions and concerns as possible over the last three years," said Justin Augustine, RTA general manager and vice president of Veolia TransDev.
According to the project's timeline, final construction documents are due by the end of June, with the construction bid finalized and awarded by early 2014, and construction wrapped by 2015. (Sixty percent of the design is complete.) The $75 million bond-financed project will run track from Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue, with six stops — at Conti, St. Ann and Ursulines streets, Esplanade Avenue, Pauger Street, and Elysian Fields. There, a double crossover (which will resemble an "X" at the intersection) will remove the travel lane closest to the neutral ground between Frenchmen and Elysian Fields for a "full-time dedicated" streetcar lane, according to project manager Bill Norquist. Also, "the travel lanes will be pushed to the outside to the cost of a parking lane for that block," he said.
Each shelter stop will have lights, ticket machines, bike parking and seating, and will meet the Americans With Disabilities Act standard for accessible designs. "We also wanted to be respectful of the historic vernacular of the neighborhoods we're going through," Norquist said. "We want neighborhoods to take ownership of these stops."
But there were some bumps even before the public meeting began. When it was announced earlier this month, the announcement did not include instruction for those who might get to the meeting using the RTA's own public transit. Instead, it mentioned a lot for cars, and even offered validated parking for attendees.
The RTA will schedule its next meeting in May, but some attendees were frustrated that last week's meeting, held inside the Hyatt French Quarter off Bourbon Street, made it difficult for residents near the planned streetcar line to attend. "This location is nice but inaccessible to primary stakeholders," Jacques Morial said. "Many people have to pay to park to come here if they can't take the RTA. You're imposing a tax on them."
"Equity is critically important to the RTA," Augustine replied. "We understand our role. We serve everybody and everybody's neighborhoods throughout this entire community. ... We have gone in other neighborhoods throughout the city to discuss this project. This is not the only meeting. We will continue to go to other locations. ... As we move closer to the neighborhoods, we will be in those respective locations. I promise that."
RTA board chairwoman Barbara Major interjected, saying, "If we really are to rebuild our city differently than it was before, we've got to not give such vague responses. ... I'm demanding we have some more meetings in other neighborhoods."
The RTA also revealed its compromise with the city — a compromise that seemingly doesn't satisfy either party. The streetcar will not run on the neutral ground (Norquist said it already is too congested with fiber optics, gas lines, AT&T lines, and an "existing underground drainage canal that dates back to the 1800s"), but will instead occupy a shared lane, except during peak traffic hours.
Meeting attendees asked, then, if Rampart Street becomes just one lane in each direction during peak traffic hours, why not restrict traffic 24 hours a day?
Even Norquist admitted that a traffic study looking at 16 impacted intersections found only three diminished traffic times, each less than three seconds.
"It was clear from the traffic study that the least impact the traffic flowing through the area would be is through the use of a shared guideway," he said. "The decision was made by the city. ... I don't want to say compromise, (but) how we could come to a solution that addressed as many concerns as we can. Nobody came out a complete victor. I'm sure if I asked now if Justin would like to see a shared guideway the whole way, he'd be shaking his head very quickly."
Augustine shook his head "yes." Gulf Restoration Network communications director Dan Favre later asked if there still is an opportunity in the planning process for a dedicated lane. That's up to the city, Augustine said.
Pre-Hurricane Katrina planning for a downtown streetcar lane, the Desire line, proposed building a line from Rampart and Canal as far as Poland Avenue. An RTA recommendation from 2002 considered building an underpass at Press Street to avoid Norfolk Southern Railway, which owns the railroad at Press. "The underpass would be in the neutral ground and allow streetcars to pass underneath the railroad line," the project fact sheet reads.
Early plans for the current incarnation of the Rampart line included sending the cars as far as Press — but not to Poland Avenue. The RTA's current funding limits its reach, unless any federal Department of Transportation TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery ) grants become available. Augustine said the RTA would seek to get them.
Augustine said he'll be in Washington D.C. this week to negotiate with Norfolk Southern. "It's going to come down to a protracted legal battle," he said. "The best and strongest voice will win, I guess."
Residents also are bracing for the same kind of brief-yet-messy construction overhaul seen recently on Loyola Avenue. Augustine said, "That's just the way it is.
"If you look at the national audience," he added, "they're asking, 'Wow, how'd you get this thing done so fast?'"