Presently, if I want to drive to the Marigny and points further East, I usually take the Claiborne Expressway or South Rampart. I could certainly go through the Quarter, but that’s generally a nightmare. I could also go further north, but reaching a road north of the expressway would be a major detour. The options are pretty well limited.
For some inexplicable reason, plans are being made to kill both the expressway and Rampart as useful thoroughfares for vehicular traffic. First, plans were proposed a few years ago to remove the Claiborne Expressway entirely and relegate it to a surface street, complete with stop lights and the inevitable congestion that it causes. A report prepared by Smart Mobility, Inc., and Waggonner & Ball Architects recommended removing the expressway and revamping various surface streets north of the expressway to redistribute traffic flow (none of which would provide a quick path from points near the river between uptown to downtown).
I was generally skeptical of this plan because the assumptions just seemed too rosy. The trope was that the Claiborne Expressway was already badly in need of repair and the cost of removal would actually be less than the cost of maintenance. However, the longer I listened the more complicated and expensive the plans started to sound. Interstate 610 would have to be redesigned, as would several surface roads.
Apparently, the proponents of the plans themselves have now sobered up and are now pitching more modest alternatives to the complete removal of the expressway, but they largely involve removing on-ramps and off-ramps, rendering the expressway next to useless to local traffic. The Livable Claiborne Communities Study proposes three scenarios, two of which involve the removal of ramps. Both of these “ramp-removing” scenarios would demolish the ramps at St. Phillip and Esplanade. For my purposes, if you do that, you might as well tear the whole thing down.
Now, this might be tolerable if I could still cut through the CBD and go down Rampart Street / St. Claude. However, as I discussed in a previous column, the planned Rampart/St. Claude Streetcar line may well end up rendering Rampart a two-lane road.
Rather than running in the neutral ground as the streetcar did historically, the Rampart streetcar will be placed in the traffic lanes on either side. The city wants to restrict these lanes to streetcar traffic during morning and afternoon rush hours (already a major impediment to traffic) but argue that traffic studies cannot justify a permanent transit lane. Transit advocates, on the other hand, want a dedicated transit lane and don’t seem to care one whit about impacts on vehicular traffic.
No matter who wins this debate, cars will lose. The streetcar will slow down vehicular traffic either way; the results will simply be more catastrophic if the inner-lanes are closed off completely to cars. Rail transit and cars have always been an uneasy mix in traffic. Streetcars have poor stopping distance and can’t steer away to avoid blocking traffic in the event of a breakdown or accident. Thus, Rampart and St. Claude will be less appealing as arterials.
Proponents of these changes highlight the benefits to surrounding neighborhoods. All I hear is my 10-minute drive to the Marigny increasing to a half hour.
Since both of these issues are hitting at once, Uptowners need to make their voices heard. These decisions involve major traffic routes and should be made by everyone. After all, if every individual neighborhood association had its druthers, there would probably be no through streets at all.
We also need a great deal more introspection. When people talk about planning roads these days, there tends to be a halo effect whereby anything that slows down cars is good and anything that promotes them is bad. Some people regurgitate this line of thinking even though, deep-down, they know that they usually drive and wouldn’t change that for all the bike lanes and streetcars in the world. They might lie to themselves they they’ll still go to that show on Frenchman even if it takes twice as long to get there, but in the end it can and will impact their decision-making.
There’s also the question of the type of city we want. Tourists use cabs and transit to travel long distances; locals generally use personal vehicles. If you make it more difficult to drive, you’re keeping locals out, ostensibly with the hope that tourists will fill the void. But do we want to be a city for residents, or a city for tourists?
I understand that traffic mobility isn’t a universal good. Creating a pedestrian mall at Jackson Square hindered traffic, but it was a good idea. We also dodged a bullet when we prevented the powers-that-be from slapping a freeway on Decatur through the French Quarter. Nonetheless, the pendulum has now swung too far the other way. We aren’t recognizing just how important vehicular mobility is, instead indulging the delusion that we can all walk or take transit in the hottest and most humid city in the history of heat and humidity.
Now that delusion is being laid bare. What is being proposed is nothing short of a wall of traffic congestion separating uptown and downtown. It’s poor planning and it needs to be stopped.
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.