Bus Finance New Orleans Streetcar

When transit service is substandard, can we plan for capital expansion?

» New Orleans fantasizes about new streetcar routes as its buses barely make the grade.

Public transportation expenditures are typically divided into two buckets: One for operations expenditures — the money that goes primarily to pay the costs of gas, electricity, and driver labor — and the other for capital investments, which sometimes means maintenance but often means new vehicles and system expansions. Because of the way in which these two buckets are funded, a transit agency that may be in dire straights in terms of paying for system expansions may be providing excellent, well-funded daily services. Or the opposite could be true. This is a consequence of the fact that federal transportation grant support, and also often local system revenues, are required to be spent in one of the two areas, with little ability to transfer funds between them. The division between capital and operations funding produces some strange dynamics and perverse incentives for transit agencies, and the results are not always ideal for the typical rider.

Take the example of New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was one of the most transit-reliant cities in the country, with more daily rides per capita on its transit system than Philadelphia, Seattle, Baltimore, or Portland. Of commuters, 14% took transit to work on an average weekday in 2000. By 2010, the figures had been slashed; just 7.5% of commuters took transit to work, according to the Census. The following map shows that this change occurred across the city.

Drag vertical line from left to right to see before and after (if this does not work for you, view the article in a web browser). “Before” image is from 2000, “after” from 2010. Images from Social Explorer.

The change in transit use has a lot to do with the changes in the city’s demographics before and after the storm; it has become slightly whiter and wealthier. But it also has a lot to do with the terrible transit service that the city has provided. A recent report from local transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans notes that only 36% of the transit trips offered in 2005 were available in 2012, despite a population that was 86% as large as it was in 2005. While in 2005, 80% of routes had scheduled headways of 30 minutes or less during peak hours (and 28% had peak headways of 15 minutes or less), in 2012, only 24% of routes were offered every at least 30 minutes and just 9 percent at least every fifteen minutes.

The result is the following map of service levels, from Ride New Orleans, which demonstrates clearly that service is simply unacceptable. The red routes in the map illustrate routes that serve customers with headways of more than 30 minutes. Only the green routes — which are the Canal-Cemetery and St. Charles Streetcar routes — come at least every fifteen minutes. Most of the city has truly insufficient transit options. Non-white neighborhoods have been particularly hard hit.

But people are streaming back into the buses and streetcars nonetheless. Trips per revenue hour, which measures service efficiency, are now almost as high as they were in the early 2000s and continue to rise. In fact, the New Orleans system now beats out what are considered respectable transit agencies in Miami, Minneapolis, and St. Louis on that count. And ridership continues to grow. Fortunately, Veolia — a private-sector* transport provider that runs New Orleans’ transit system under contract — has been expanding service to meet demand. In January, it added some new routes; in September, it is restoring service to an additional 13 routes. Things are looking up on the operational front, but the system will still be far less effective than it was before Katrina. Yet the city’s transport planners are also laying out plans for a different type of improvement: Many more streetcar lines running throughout the city, as illustrated in the map at the top of this article.

Last month, local planners revealed a $3.5 billion expansion plan that is contingent on securing funding from a number of sources. The proposal suggests 34 track-miles of new streetcar service by 2030, going far beyond the “Desire” streetcar that is currently partially under development along Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. A new line would extend north to the University of New Orleans; another east through the Lower Ninth Ward; a couple would flow through the central business district; and a connection would be made between the Canal and St. Charles Streetcars. It’s an appealing vision, particularly when combined with three new bus rapid transit and two light rail lines planners have also envisioned. And, like most U.S. regions, New Orleans’ transit investments so far have been substandard, so planning for the future is reasonable.

But it’s also a plan that comes across as incongruous with the rather disappointing state of the day-to-day bus services that most people rely upon. New Orleans’ plans for new transit expansions are in many ways the consequence of federal guidelines that guarantee that capital expansions will be pushed through whatever the state of regular operations. Because transit support from Washington, D.C. explicitly prevents spending on operations for most cities, it would be a mistake for New Orleans to pass up on the funds available for new construction.

Indeed, from a budgetary perspective, there is nothing about plans for new transit expansions that either prevent better operations or encourage it; operations and capital budgets might as well be coming from different agencies altogether. The Canal Street Streetcar is only ten years old, but its City Park/Museum branch only has trains operating every half hour, even at peak. The Loyola-UPT Streetcar, which opened last year, only provides service every 20 minutes, including at peak, not enough to allow people to rely on transit without having to consult a schedule, which should be a goal of transit operations planning.

What is the point of making the substantial investments in these capital projects if the city cannot guarantee that service on those lines will be offered acceptably? How can we be sure that all these new lines being proposed won’t receive similar mistreatment for the day-to-day user? New Orleans’ situation is not unique. Because local and state governments are expected to fund transit operations, the provision of service throughout the U.S. is highly inequitable; indeed, evidence suggests that poorer regions like New Orleans are simply unable to pay for the kinds of excellent day-to-day transit services that wealthier regions can. But both rich and poor regions are able to invest new lines, because the federal government commits to those projects. Whether these lines are funded to actually serve the people nearby, though, is another question.

One appropriate federal policy response might be to require that transit agencies receiving funds for major capital expansions guarantee that service on those new lines meets some minimum, such as headways of ten minutes or less during peak hours and fifteen minutes or less off-peak, as long as other system operations are not negatively affected. If transit agencies respond by suggesting that projected ridership doesn’t justify such service levels, perhaps such lines shouldn’t be funded at all.

* Confusingly, Veolia is a subsidiary of the French company Transdev, which is 50% owned by the French Caisse des Dépôts and 50% owned by Veolia Environnement. The Caisse is effectively a public bank controlled by the French government, and Veolia Environnement, which has some private investors, is also owned in part by the French state and in part by… the Caisse (9.3%). Which means that New Orleans’ public transit, oddly enough, is operated by a company whose primary owner is the French state. Globalization is confusing.

Cincinnati Dallas Fort Worth New Orleans Phoenix Streetcar

Streetcar Projects Advance Nationwide Thanks to Local Initiative

» In spite of questions over whether the federal streetcar program has a future and the death of a project in Fort Worth, local dollars are distributed to build new links in Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe.

Last week’s decision by officials in Fort Worth, Texas to halt planning work on the city’s streetcar line struck a blow to the nation’s nascent collection of modern streetcar lines, one of the Obama Administration’s biggest transportation policy moves. Local leaders backed down from a $25 million grant received from the federal government earlier this year, arguing that the city wasn’t ready to invest its own money in a project that some suggested shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers.

The decision reinforced the commonly heard argument that the federal government is encouraging a form of transportation that is not fully accepted by people on the ground. It is certainly true that Fort Worth was far from prepared to accept the grant from Washington when it was first distributed, as the city had yet to specify a route or identify a definite local funding source.

The disappointing news from Cowtown, however, was the exception to the rule this month as Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe worked to establish their own local revenue streams for major streetcar projects.

In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory celebrated the decision by Ohio’s Transportation Review Advisory Council to award the city’s planned streetcar line $35 million in state funds. After receiving a federal Urban Circulator grant this summer and dedicating corporate and local dollars to the line, Cincinnati is now ready to break ground on the first phase next year. Dallas, which won a $23 million TIGER grant for a new downtown streetcar link in February and later received more funding from Washington for an extension to its McKinney Avenue historic streetcar, now has $10.8 million more from the Regional Transportation Council to spend on both projects. And New Orleans, whose Loyola Avenue connection is fully funded by the federal government, is considering redirecting local dollars to build another line down Rampart Street. Millions of dollars in new development is already being directed to sites adjacent to proposed streetcar stops in New Orleans.

The funds once earmarked for Fort Worth are likely to be redistributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation to another more interested city like Washington, D.C., which has a major streetcar system planned but which has yet to receive any federal funds for its construction.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix metropolitan planning organization has agreed to move a 2.6-mile streetcar planned for Tempe to the region’s long-term transportation plan. Though the group will ask the federal government to cover half the project’s costs — likely to add up to about $160 million — this represents a concrete commitment to spend local dollars on the project. Ten years ago, the only city in the country that would have agreed to such a major engagement was Portland. Other cities that have received U.S. funds and which are likely to move forward with their own projects over the next few years include Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and Tucson.

Together, this news represents a strong endorsement for streetcar projects at the local level: Interest in streetcar construction extends beyond the boundaries of the nation’s capital. The mode’s expansion into metropolitan areas nationwide is genuinely supported by a whole bevy of citizens and leaders from coast to coast, willing to put up their own funds for projects that they think will improve their communities’ development patterns and mobility options.

Nevertheless, future federal support for streetcar projects has been put into question by the arrival of a new Congress that clearly does not share the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for this particular mode of transportation. New House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has supported expanding the federal pot of funds for transportation, but he has also argued for increasing Congressional oversight over executive agencies such as the Department of Transportation. The grant programs that have contributed mightily to the build-up of streetcar networks — TIGER, Small Starts, and Urban Circulators — currently give the Secretary of Transportation (Ray LaHood) decision-making powers over which projects to fund. Mr. Mica has implied that he thinks such decisions should be made by legislators; would a new Republican majority in the house choose to spend that money on streetcars?

Democrats have picked as their ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), someone who, to put matters mildly, has not made much of an effort to demonstrate his support for alternative transportation. He doesn’t seem likely to be a big voice in favor of devoting more of Washington’s money to streetcars.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the Congress has any interest in making room for further discretionary grant programs at all, considering the complete lack of consensus on how to fund maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure, let alone expansions in the form of streetcars.

Nonetheless, the clear commitments given by some localities to their own streetcar programs indicate that there is a future for such transportation in the United States, even if Washington takes its hands off.

DOT New Orleans Streetcar

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

High-Speed Rail New Orleans

Governor Bobby Jindal, Flip-Flopper Extraordinaire

After criticizing high-speed rail, Louisiana’s governor submitted a preliminary application for federal funds. Now, after being criticized for his hypocrisy, Bobby Jindal changes his mind once again.

Just last month, Louisiana informed the Federal Railroad Administration that it would request funds for a $300 million high-speed link between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The final application was due today — but Mr. Jindal has now decided not to submit it, citing concerns that the line would not be self-sustaining. Considering the general attitude of the American right, however, it seems reasonable to suggest that the governor’s decision was motivated more by an attempt to save face in front of his conservative allies than by a fiscal argument.

In his televised Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address in February, Mr. Jindal focused his aim at high-speed rail, arguing that it was “larded.” Like most modern conservatives, the governor has made a point to claim that virtually any government spending is wasteful, no matter its actual value; in other words, public expenditures are almost always bad, private involvement is almost always good. That anti-interventionist position, inspired by an obsessive adherence to Ronald Reagan’s legacy, has provided the principal ideological backbone to today’s GOP. But as Paul Krugman put it in today’s Times, Reaganomics has failed to improve the relative economic situation of the vast majority of U.S. citizens, while making the super-rich wealthier than ever.

I should note that Republican objections to government spending extend to almost everything, but the party does seem willing to increase expenditures on highways and the military.

Thus it was a surprise when Mr. Jindal suggested that he would ask for high-speed rail funds from the stimulus. Perhaps it was no surprise either that the governor has now reneged on his commitment, though the Louisiana Department of Transportation claims that the decision was non-political, based on the state’s unwillingness to subsidize a rail line in the future. That explanation, however, is hard to believe; prior to this action, local officials were given the impression that they would be asked to help find the funds for the corridor’s operations. The President of the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce apparently plans to ask the state to reconsider its decision.

Mr. Jindal’s actions put serious holes in the suggestion that spending on infrastructure such as high-speed rail can be a bipartisan goal. The Transport Index I published last week suggests the same, showing that Senate members of the GOP are overwhelmingly anti-investment. Republican opposition to every aspect of the Democratic agenda is becoming increasing clear, and U.S. involvement in high-speed rail could become a rallying point for criticism. Already, conservative commentators are zeroing in onthe triumph of fantasy over fact” that they think trains represent, without fully considering the advantages of rail investment.

To suggest that high-speed rail will become a lighting rod for criticism — especially by rural or suburban GOP legislators, who see little gain for their constituents and who gasp at the suggestion that any government program might be expanded — seems evident. If the Republicans regain control of the Congress in the 2010 midterms, hopes for an bettered U.S. train system will be dashed on the tracks.

New Orleans Streetcar

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.


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