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