The New Orleans City Council appears to be proposing that St. Claude Avenue be made into a pathetic two-lane road, but Mayor Landrieu is at least showing some sense on the issue.
Here’s the background: As most New Orleanians are aware, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) recently promulgated preliminary plans for installing a new streetcar line along Rampart St. and St. Claude Avenue from Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue. As with the widely-panned Loyola-UPT Streetcar line, rather than restoring the historic norm of having the streetcar tracks running in the neutral ground, the plans call for slapping the tracks down in the traffic lanes adjoining the streetcar line (sharing the lanes with vehicles). It’s stupid, ahistorical and ugly.
For its part, the RTA argues that obstructions made it impossible to run the tracks down the neutral ground, which is far narrower than the neutral ground on other lines where the neutral ground is used, namely St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. Although it isn’t mentioned, cost considerations and compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act may also be at issue here, which would tend to require more space for loading and unloading.
What is definitely clear is that the original Rampart-St. Claude streetcar line mostly ran in the neutral ground. You can find a photos from 1943 showing a streetcar running in the neutral ground on Rampart. Although at some parts of the line the streetcar did run in traffic lanes, it was viewed as something to avoid to allow for the free flow of traffic.
The RTA’s plans crudely slap the tracks in traffic lanes and instead place garish, modern-styled stations in the neutral ground, stations that bear little resemblance to the masonry structures used at major terminals in the old days.
With this background, you would think that the biggest source of debate over the proposed Rampart-St. Claude Line would be the decision to place the streetcar tracks in concrete traffic lanes rather than the neutral ground, a decision that eschews commonsense engineering and historical norms. Sadly, this is not the case.
The New Orleans City Council has recently endorsed the idea of having a dedicated traffic lane for the streetcar, rather than sharing it with regular traffic. This would cut vehicular traffic on Rampart and St. Claude to only one lane in either direction. You would have a total of 22 feet of space for vehicular traffic (5 more if you include a single proposed bike lane) versus a total of nearly 38 feet of space for the streetcar. That’s insane.
The reason why the old streetcars worked with vehicular traffic is that they normally had their own space in the neutral ground, and when they didn’t, they interacted with ground traffic like any other vehicle. Even then, it was accepted that the market share of streetcars was always going be small in comparison with personal vehicles. The streetcar wasn’t some altar upon which personal mobility would be sacrificed.
Mayor Landrieu, for his part, seems to understand this. “Traffic studies suggest there would be significant negative impacts to traffic flow in the Central Business District and French Quarter associated with reconfiguring this heavily used street with one travel lane and a dedicated streetcar lane as opposed to two traffic lanes,” says City Hall spokesman C. Hayne Rainey. Accordingly, the administration only plans to bar those lanes to regular traffic during peak hours.
The reaction from the City Council, particularly District C Councilwoman Kristen Palmer who chairs the transportation committee, has been to attack the studies and cite the recently enacted “complete streets” ordinance passed by the council. That ordinance, if you recall, generally requires the city to consider pedestrians, transit and bicycles whenever a street is worked on. However, what we have here is not a proposal for equal time with vehicular traffic. With dedicated lanes, the streetcar would totally dominate St. Claude and Rampart.
However, I really don’t see why this needs to be the case. Surely, if RTA simply wants to resurrect a historic streetcar line, it should restore the original configuration. That means using the neutral ground – not traffic lanes. If using the neutral ground is truly impractical given modern laws and the current state of the roadway, then perhaps that’s a sign that the whole project is impractical. Is there any sign that RTA even considered the notion that it might prove less than cost-effective to install streetcars on Rampart on St. Claude? If so, it isn’t clear from public reports.
At least RTA was willing to compromise with the city on the use of traffic lanes. The City Council, on the other hand, is completely off the (proverbial) rails. The fact that the council doesn’t consider St. Claude-as-a-two-lane-road to be impractical is disturbing, but what’s worst is the fact that they are even unwilling to accept a compromise on the issue.
In summation, I am rapidly losing any optimism I may have had for the RTA and the council to make reasonable proposals for streetcar expansions. They seem to believe that vehicular traffic no longer matters, cost-effectiveness is merely a point-of-view, and that streetcars are an end unto themselves. Nothing good can come of that.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.