New Orleans Rekindles Hopes for a Desire Streetcar

New Orleans Desire Streetcar Map» City to use FTA planning funds to consider new line downtown.

New Orleans is famous for its streetcars, but the fact is that the city has only a few lines in operation, and their service has been relatively limited since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Yet the RTA transit operator there is intent on moving ahead with increasing its offerings, and has launched a study of potential corridors in the still-vibrant French Quarter and Central Business District. The three lines under consideration — shown in the map above — are all quite short and provide service just a few blocks from where streetcars already travel. The options, in other words, aren’t particularly compelling.

RTA’s focus is on increasing the attractiveness of the city’s core by expanding access to the convention center, the city hall, and the northern areas of the French Quarter and the burgeoning Marigny neighborhood. Each line could bring in between 800 and 2,000 additional daily boarders, no huge boost for ridership in the city, but that’s largely because no real improved service would be provided to some of the city’s poorer and more transit-needy areas. RTA plans on submitting its application for federal Small Start funding by September, with funding possible in the President’s FY 2011 budget. Money for the study itself comes from a federal allocation awarded to the city in 2003.

I hate to say it, but if they were built as envisioned here, these routes would do very little for New Orleans. Their modest ridership estimates are probably accurate, because the limited extent of the service proposed, as well as their duplication of existing lines, would make these streetcar investments a waste. The project proposed is simply too small.

What’s interesting about the project are the similarities between its “French Quarter loop” concept and the Desire Streetcar project rejected by the Federal Transit Administration in 2003. That streetcar line, whose route is shown in the map below, would have run 2.9 miles from Canal Street along Rampart and St. Claude Avenues through Marigny and Bywater towards the Lower Ninth Ward, expanding access to some of the city’s most deprived citizens. The corridor being considered today covers about 2/5 of the same route.

The FTA rejected the Desire line during the New Starts process because it would have done little to decrease commuters’ travel times, as the streetcars would have been just as slow as existing buses. The project would have cost only $121 million to build, and it would have attracted 20,000 daily riders — but most of them would have simply been transferring from buses. Yet, there’s a strong argument to be made that streetcars can play a positive role in focusing neighborhood development in a way that buses cannot, making their added expense sometimes worth the cost. In the case of Desire, a streetcar line could be a spark for greater revitalization of the neighborhood as a whole. Though the feds were probably right in their assessment of the limited time-travel savings offered by the line, the possibilities for land use improvements are endless. A Desire line makes more sense now than ever.

Considering the wide-scale destruction caused by Katrina (including the temporary shutting down of the St. Charles streetcar line), perhaps it was a good thing that Desire wasn’t approved for funding. But considering the Obama Administration’s new livable communities initiative and its clear support for streetcar projects, it’s likely that it would have been approved for Small Starts funding had its application come through today. So there’s a strong chance that at least one of RTA’s proposed routes could find money in Washington.

Why, then, are the proposals being considered now so limited in their scope? Why isn’t a full-scale Desire line on the agenda again? The answer is likely the limited finances of the anemic RTA, which has yet to regain its former scope in a much smaller New Orleans. But the city needs bigger plans than what is now on offer, because these projects — while they could be the start of something more important — aren’t much right now. Transport for NOLA could offer some helpful advice on where to go; I think a full-scale Desire line is the place to start, not some shriveled one-mile excuse for a project.

Desire

Image above: CBD/French Quarter Streetcar routes, from New Orleans RTA; Desire Streetcar project, from New Orleans RTA

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Of course, none of this will benefit the city’s low-income population, which has born the brunt of every disaster since the 1920s…

  • Ed Viguerie

    I live in Louisiana, about 120 West of New Orleans. I love the streetcars in New Orleans and ride them whenever I’m in the city. Though they do serve a public transportation function, I think they are still viewed as a tourist attraction. Their primary function is to shuttle tourists to various parts of the city. I suspect that the proposed routes are intended to aid this primary function. The city is not known for bold thinking, just the opposite I’m afraid. Perhaps, when she has enough successful lines running, she will realize that the streetcars can serve her own people, not just the tourists.

  • It sounds like they just need to be realistic about why they’re building streetcars, and that the Federal government needs to be realistic as well. Streetcars are about economic development and tourism. If your focus is on the average citizen who just wants to get where she’s going fast, replacing slow buses with slow streetcars achieves nothing. The streetcar agenda will begin to flow much more smoothly if it’s based on its documented claims on economic development value rather than often-false claims about improved mobility.

  • There is a piece in this about increased mobility. It’s not just about development but what it does is when the development densities increase, the walking trips increase and mobility for walkers looking to get to other neighborhoods to walk increases. The Portland Streetcar isn’t a very fast transit alternative but it does increase the walk shed.

    I think this is part of the discourse that is missing. I think speed is important but sometimes speed blinds us to the movement that is possible with streetcars and the development they bring when its(zoning etc) planned and executed correctly.

    On a different note, I’ve heard that a deal had been struck with the feds to build the desire line behind closed doors but then the Hurricane hit and it was thrown out the window.

    Yonah you might want to go back into the New Starts archives. Always good information in there. Here’s the desire line federal documents from 2005.

    http://www.fta.dot.gov/documents/NO2AA.doc

  • Woody

    I’m not in favor of these proposals. They all anticipate using pseudo-quaint, heritage-style trolleys, iiuc, in keeping with the touristy role.

    In other words, the new streetcars would lack the modern features of the Euro-style trams, especially low floors and wide doors. There would be no easy boarding for handicapped and obese users (and there are plenty of those in the Big Easy!) or for those encumbered by strollers, shopping carts, suitcases, etc. No wonder the fed study found no gain in speed over the old buses!

    I love the old streetcars on the St. Charles line, and I have ridden the line end to end half a dozen times. But recreating the old-style cars for new lines is almost phony, and surely unnecessary.

    Putting new Euro-style trams to work on new tracks in this city would help to educate visitors about how well streetcars could work back in their home towns. But fake old trolleys are just another amusement park ride, better left to Disney.

  • Thanks for picking up on this, Yonah! I was going to write to put this on your radar, but I should have known that this wouldn’t get by you.

    Your analysis is spot-on. As with so many decisions in our great city after Katrina, this one reflects the disconnect between the needs of our neighborhoods and the priorities of our elected and appointed officials.

    Without demonizing the effors of the RTA and our Regional Planning Commission, they are simply focused on getting a ‘people-mover’ trolley that circulates tourists from Canal Street to the Convention Center along an alignment that unequivocally is a duplication of existing service and which reflects astoundingly bad transportation planning and priorities. The current study is largely a horse and pony show: from the beginning, it has been a foregone conclusion that the RTA wanted another tourist trolley line to serve visitors rather than promote community economic development and reinvestment in our neighborhoods. So while I commend the RTA on their efforts to invest in fixed-guideway transit in the Crescent City, I cannot say the same of their inability to invest in modern light rail technology that actually promotes the revitalization of our neighborhoods.

    Transport for NOLA (TfNOLA) has had some success in pushing back on the RTA (and its consultant, HDR) and the RPC: we have already gotten the RTA to expand the study area to Press Street, which is about 70% of the previously proposed Desire alignment, and are encouraging them to support one of the other alignments in their study area that will make the connection to Lee Circle, which creates excellent network effects and introduces important origins and destinations to the Desire alignment (including the Union Passenger Terminal, which one day could be a high speed rail hub, as well as the Superdome, a proposed linear jazz historical district, and the upper Warehouse and highrise districts). The RTA is reticent to extend the Desire line all the way to Poland Avenue or into the 9th Ward because Southern Railways is such an obstructionist in crossing Press Street (despite that fact that Tennessee Williams’ Desire streetcar ran many times a day past the Press Street railroad crossing!) We also need to do a lot more work in terms of breaking the RTA’s resignation to only use high-floor, single car streetcars, and we need to make sure that the Lee Circle to Press Street alignment is their locally-preferred alignment (LPA).

    We’ve had some good press, and will hopefully get some more in the coming weeks.

    I’d also like to note that you are spot on about the manner in which an investment in fixed guideway transit would dramatically support reinvestment in neighborhoods. Part of the reason why time savings and supplanting buses were an issue in the original Desire line study is because–part and parcel of the ‘tourist trolley’ mentality–there were stops every two blocks! It is so indicative of the level of analysis, policy, and leadership in New Orleans that we submitted such junk to the FTA the first time around, and have such low expectations now.

    Lastly, you’ve hit on the major chord that we’d like to keep striking: New Orleans needs to be thinking bigger. In New Orleans, 95% of any potential light rail alignment is already in the public domain because of our neutral grounds (what we call medians) and our Public Belt Railroad. Moreover, we are still an incredibly dense city below I-10/Florida Avenue; case-in-point: the density along the Lee Circle to Press Street alignment is over 13,000 people per square mile, with a large transit-dependent population and an extremely pedestrian-friendly built environment. There simply is no reason that we shouldn’t expect to have state-of-the-art light rail invested here and on similar corridors all over the city.

    I do have one question that maybe you could help shed some light on. I’ve spoken a number of times with the head of the local consulting team, and she insists that they are going to recommend all of the proposed alignments. Is it possible to submit not one LPA to the FTA but several? It seems to me that even if this were acceptable (it’s not to me, at the very least, and hopefully to the FTA; the Convention Center Loop should never be built), there would still be some prioritization of financing and timing of construction. Is this common practice of submitting LPAs to the FTA for funding, or is this another example of New Orleans undermining itself?

    Thanks again, Yonah!

    Best,
    Jeff

  • Here’s more. The RTA is being really disingenuous by saying that it is going to apply for all three alignments, knowing full well that the Convention Center Loop and Loyola Avenue Connection don’t need nearly the federal support that the St. Claude line (the only one actually extending to dense neighborhood with a transit-dependent population) does. By applying for all three ($200M out of the $1.5B LaHood has to spend), RTA is killing the St. Claude alignment with inaction.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I remember hearing there was a streetcar in Ohio called a Red Devil that could go 80 miles on hour they could consder getting a streetcar like that to go faster then buses. I noice that maybe with this streetcar project they should drive to extend a line stright up from the existing streetcar line along the river and have it go pasted Insterstate 10 to the places north of it. It also looks like maybe they should conisder building a line pasted the point were the river line ends to open up more space for the streetcars in places the’ve never been before. The streetcar line going though the core of the French Quater though looks good in that it’s away from the river and it goes more though the core.

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