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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

RTA: Streetcar expansion to Press Street 'not a priority' at this time

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2018 at 1:37 PM

click to enlarge PAUL SABLEMAN / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0
  • PAUL SABLEMAN / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0

During a somewhat contentious exchange at New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's (RTA's) monthly Board of Commissioners meeting, officials pushed back on the notion that a St. Claude Avenue streetcar expansion to Press Street — a project currently under environmental study — is among the organization's top priorities.

Officials were responding to criticism from Alex Posorske, executive director of transit watchdog group Ride New Orleans, who noted that the study — once thought to be shelved — was back on. He pointed to community engagement activities and online materials that suggest a more prominent place for this project in RTA's long-term plans. If undertaken, the expansion could potentially fuel a long-running perception by transit advocates and some members of the riding public that RTA is more invested in streetcar development than revitalizing its bus system. 

But Adelee Le Grand, RTA management company Transdev's chief strategy officer and project manager for the study, rejected the idea that the streetcar expansion is somehow of special importance to the organization. She said early discussions with neighborhood stakeholders have used carefully crafted talking points to explain that this is just an environmental study, which assesses the impact on the built and natural environment, should the organization decide to move forward. It should not be used to interpret anything about RTA's plans, and she said they've been very upfront that this is "not a priority" for the group at this time.

"We understand that everyone will not be on the same page" about the project, she said, and asked for "honesty and transparency" in portraying RTA's ambitions.
"We are not taking a position on a mode of transit — we cannot," RTA general manager and Transdev VP Justin Augustine III added.

But RTA board members observed the recurring nature of this discussion, in which some members of the public and other observers argue that streetcars take precedence at the expense of bus riders. Commissioner Barbara Waiters said she's received emails from universities who are studying why New Orleans is expanding streetcar service rather than bus service, and noted that much of the organization's social media is focused on streetcars.
Commissioner Flozell Daniels Jr. remarked on the historical and racial dynamics of the debate (in which streetcars historically only traveled to certain neighborhoods, and are seen as less likely to serve communities of color and the less affluent). He said the organization needs to keep these threads in mind in its messaging as the study moves forward.

"People see studies as signals about where your priorities might be," he said. "There's always been this tension between bus and streetcar — who's getting served?"

Officials promised to make further information, including accompanying data and a written summary of the project's intent, available to members of the board in the coming weeks. According to Le Grand, preliminary engagement about the study with Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhood groups and businesses will continue, and a larger meeting soliciting public comment will take place this summer.

At today's meeting, officials also provided information about a pilot program for an inter-parish day pass that could be used on both RTA and Jefferson Transit (JeT) vehicles. Though awaiting approval by JeT's board and the finalization of some details, it's thought that the six-month program could begin in August. The pass will cost around $6.

The organization also detailed plans to suspend riverfront streetcar service at Canal Street beginning May 13 to facilitate construction on the Four Seasons development at the old World Trade Center side. The streetcar will still run between Canal Street and the French Market, but riders won't be able to take the streetcar to the Poydras Station or Julia Station stops. Officials are in talks with Four Seasons developer Woodward Design+Build about providing an alternate method of transit along that portion of the route.

Service could be affected for up to two years. 

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