DOT to Award $280 Million in Inner-City Circulator Grants

New Orleans Proposed Streetcar Alignments» Announcement in New Orleans suggests that city will receive funds for its planned French Quarter streetcar line.

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans hard — harder than any American city has been hit by natural disaster for decades. Yet if the storm put the town on its death bed, to pretend that it wad in pristine condition beforehand would be absurd. The big easy had been losing population since the fifties, and for good reason: it had huge crime problems and worse, a depressed economy that couldn’t keep up with a rapidly changing global marketplace. In some ways, then, the despair and destruction caused by the storm could mean a rethinking of the city’s raison d’être.

For those who believe that an investment in streetcars could play a major role in that transformation, the Obama Administration’s announcement yesterday that it will spend some $280 million on inner-city trolley and bus projects around the country is very good news.

Indeed, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s decision to stage the press conference announcing the move in New Orleans bodes very well for the city’s chance of getting a portion of the funds. The money is separate from the TIGER discretionary grants included in the stimulus — instead, it has been sourced from unspent New Start money, which is supposed to go to major transit capital projects. Even so, Mr. LaHood has yet to make any formal commitment about how the funds will be distributed in $25 million pieces; the DOT will make its decision early next year.

New Orleans can expect to see its planned French Quarter streetcar project awarded. The city has been planning the line for about a decade, initially referring to it as the Desire Line in reference to the movie that made the city’s public transportation system so famous. After abandoning it before the storm, the local RTA transit agency decided to bring the idea back for a second consideration last year, when it began studying route alternatives. The stimulus’ TIGER grants provided the ideal opportunity to apply for federal money, and the city did just that, asking for $96 million just months ago.

New Orleans advertised itself as uniquely positioned to receive the grants because it was willing to commit 40% of project funds, which would total $161 million if it can build all three planned corridors. Using local sales tax revenues as well as a convention capital reserve fund, the city would extend a streetcar corridor from Union Passenger Terminal to Press Street along Loyola Avenue, Rampart Street, and St. Claude Avenue; in addition, it would stretch out its existing waterfront line from near its eastern terminus along Elysian Fields Avenue to meet the new service and extend it in the other direction in a one-way loop around the convention center (thus the use of convention funds). All in all, the city would get 3.3 new route miles of streetcar service to augment that already provided on the waterfront line and the more famous St. Charles and Canal Street routes.

The construction of the convention center line, running in a one-way loop and serving areas that are either completely underpopulated or already close enough to streetcar routes, would be a major mistake. It is indicative that RTA did not ask for TIGER money for that project but rather hopes to receive a Small Start grant — a dubious expectation. Before New Orleans throws away $25 million of its own money on that line, one can only hope that DOT will intervene.

On the other hand, the two projects for which New Orleans does hope for TIGER money — and for which it will presumably be awarded some of this new grant money — would be reasonable expansions of the streetcar network currently in place. By better serving the northern French Quarter, Treme, Marigny, and Bywater, the corridor could be an economic development engine in interesting neighborhoods that are in need of more investment. Thanks to the work of Jeffrey Schwartz and his forward-thinking organization Transport for NOLA, the line heads further into the eastern part of the city than originally planned in RTA’s first evaluation of the corridor. A future extension into the ravaged, but salvageable, Lower Ninth Ward is a definite possibility as a result of this decision.

Whether New Orleans’ project is a better investment than many of the streetcar lines proposed elsewhere in the country is a separate question entirely. In fact, the entire project is only expected to attract about 2,500 users a day, half of whom currently take the bus. Interestingly, the RTA freely admits that more people (259 daily in 2031) will switch from walking to this line than will switch from driving (155)! Because of the number of stops planned along the route, there will be no travel time improvements over existing buses. With such limited benefits, it’s hard to believe New Orleans will get any federal money at all — let alone $25 million or more. That said, as I suggested at the beginning of this article, the administration may see this investment as an attempt to help rebuild the devastated city more than anything else. Whether that effort could be pursued more rationally is up for debate.

These new discretionary grants are being touted as the first phase of the administration’s livable communities program, which is designed to promote transit-friendly neighborhoods through coordinated action by DOT and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The relevance of this fact is quite clear in the case of New Orleans, which already has a number of such districts and which could be on the cusp of major expansion with the proposed line. Yet despite Mr. LaHood’s clear support of streetcars — a position in strong opposition to that of his predecessor, Mary Peters, and exemplified by his granting of $75 million to Portland earlier this year for a project there — the new grants actually prioritize bus system improvements. While streetcars will receive $130 million, bus and bus facility projects will get $150 million. Since these investments are about creating livable, walkable neighborhoods, the money won’t necessarily be heading to BRT proposals. It seems likely that the cities that have developed the most innovative bus systems in recent years could benefit from a few extra dollars to supplement their operations. On the other hand, the DOT probably wants to have a few hallmark BRT projects in its pocket, so they’re probably going to get some money as well.

Other cities that might receive some of the funds for streetcars include Dallas, Washington, New Haven, Charlotte, and Oklahoma City, each of which have lines in development but which currently lack adequate funding. Some cities with major BRT plans on the books include New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston. This list is purely speculative but it demonstrates the intense competition involved in this process. Whether these grants will be large enough to pay for the entirety of any of these major projects is another question; Mr. LaHood may be planning to combine some of these grants with TIGER funds, which he is also distributing.

Nonetheless, the administration’s announcement is good news for livable community activists who want to see Washington spending more on small-scale transportation improvement projects such as the streetcar corridors proposed for New Orleans. We’ll see who gets the money early in the spring.

Image above: New Orleans Proposed Streetcar Routes, from RTA

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Andrew S

    The tone of your post is upbeat, but it sounds to me like “discretionary grant” is being taken to mean “pork/glamour project”. $161 million for 2500 riders? 151 of whom used to drive? How about you take 10% of that money and create a bus lane that would draw many (if not more people), and spend the other 90% on levees that won’t fail.

    It seems the DOT has entirely abandoned any discernible objective decision making criteria.

  • Two Missouri cities put in for TIGER grants for streetcars as well; in St. Louis, the Loop Trolley group put in for a TIGER grant to construct a trolley from UCity’s spectacularly redeveloped Delmar Loop through a somewhat economically depressed area out to Forest Park (and the adjacent light rail line). And Kansas City also applied for some trolley money, though I’m not as familiar with the details. There are lots of projects out there looking for funding and it’s been eight long years of minimal federal dollars. The emphasis in this administration on livability – building not just more transit but focusing on the true TOD aspects – is very encouraging to those who want to see not just more transit but walkable, livable, vital neighborhoods that feed into the transit systems. No matter what you build, though, there have to be funds to operate it and I’m afraid that’s the biggest struggle transit agencies are facing.

  • cph

    Forgive me, but I’m not really blown away by most of these new “streetcar” projects. Seems to be a lot of money spent on big one-way loops and streetcars in mixed traffic lanes….the result is a shuttle bus on rails getting \stuck in traffic.

    My real fear is that billions of federal dollars will go to these “streetcars” while the need to expand regional light rail and rapid transit systems will go ignored.

  • Russell Warshay

    My real fear is that billions of federal dollars will go to these “streetcars” while the need to expand regional light rail and rapid transit systems will go ignored.

    I think that you can bet on your fear becoming reality. Would members of Congress really allow the money to only go where it is best spent if that leaves their constituents out of the party?

    • Funny, I was thinking the same thing. Remember all the money allocated to fix the levees and we just found out when Lee came onshore that they never fixed some and now say the money is not there? Well, what happened to the money? Seems New Orleans and Chicago have a lot in common when it comes to “taking from the people”. Look at the whole Jefferson family, and NONE have gotten punished. I am ashamed of what we the people let the government get away with.

  • DBX

    If the New Orleans Streetcar expansion, why not push the new southwest light rail in Minneapolis through Uptown where it’s needed now, rather than shunting it down Excelsior Boulevard and turning it purely into a peak commuter operation that might trigger densification in 20 years if they’re lucky?

  • EJG

    Seattle has a mildly ambitious streetcar network in planning with one line complete, one more funded and others on a preliminary map. Those projects could use outside funds to ensure they actually get built. And $25m would be nice change to throw toward Sen. Patty Murray who chiairs senate subcmte on transport appropriations. Interestingly, King County Metro has an ambitious 5 line BRT proposal moving forward called Rapid RIde. A little money could really acccelerate the timeline on that which now calls for lines to open over a few years time, but they could be constructed simultaneously. Will it be telling about the administrations mode preferences if one of those gets funded but not the other? As a last thought, I would also like to see serious consideration for building out our LRT faster. The University link tunnel is chewing up all of Sound Transit’s funding, but if additional dollars were available there is no reason we couldn’t begin work on south and east link segments sooner. and have north link ready to open along with the U segment when the tunnel is finished in 2016.

  • RBlanpied

    New Orleans was never ‘renewed’ mid-century, and the built environment is much more easily adapted to return to streetcars then to modify for wheeled transit.

    Big props to Mr. Freemark for the observations on the Convention Center. The Convention Center was supposed to fund their own steetcar loop in phase 4 expansion plans. Mayor Nagin has shifted that financial burden from the Convention Center to the taxpayer.

    The City has been trying hard to limit streetcars to tourist areas, rather than transit for workers and residents. Studies for the Loyola and Convention center loop, conducted by the City and Veola, counted population density in Uptown and CBD areas. Tourists and transients were given the same weight as workers and the study area initially did not include St. Claude, where most service industry people lived.

    Post flood, these decisions forced service industry workers (and everyone else) to take on the burden of an automobile. What few resources people had were drained off by the need to buy and maintain a car if they wanted to return and rebuild. The decisions were touted as ‘good business’, based on profit and loss projections

    The persistence of using a 20th century suburban model in a 19th century built environment is appalling. We’re strangling the Golden Goose trying to adapt to automobiles rather than embracing our unique assets.

    This business model, based on short term liquidity rather than strategic investment, has been kneecapping our recovery for years.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

Comment preview below as you type. You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


one + = 7

For help if you have trouble posting or your comment is marked as spam, please email:
info (at) thetransportpolitic.com | Comment Rules

The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

Email newsletter

Network

rss feed
comments feed
twitter feed
email update