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.