Apr 282014

Owen Courreges

Elk Place has seen better days, and poor transit planning is the most obvious culprit.  Near the intersection with Canal, transit users wait alongside derelict and ill-maintained structures with inadequate shelter and seating.  Drivers buzz by as throngs brave the elements to make their connections.

This is what happens when over 20 transit lines converge at one location, with over 5,000 riders boarding and disembarking streetcars and buses.

It’s a notorious disgrace.  The immediate area has been slow to redevelop.  The sidewalks are difficult to navigate and litter is an ongoing problem.  Not only have transit users suffered – local businesses and property owners are dissatisfied as well.

In the words of District B Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell:  “Boy, oh boy, we need some love. We need a lot of love…we’ve got to clean it up.”

This past Tuesday, local nonprofit Ride New Orleans set up 200 folding chairs to highlight the unmet need for seating and shelter.  Though well-appreciated, the effort was a publicity stunt, obviously not a permanent fix.  Thus, Ride New Orleans also released a report analyzing potential locations for a new passenger facility.

It seems like such a simple thing: providing basic seating and shelter at a major transit hub.  However, while the city saw fit to invest over $60 million for a wasteful, extravagant streetcar line along Loyola Avenue through the Central Business District, it failed to secure funds to keep 5,000 transit users protected from the sun and rain.

Alas, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is cash-strapped.  Fare-increases are already planned.  Although RTA already plans to install 16 bus benches on Rampart and Elk at a cost of $16,000, it’s best described as a Band-Aid on a cut that requires stitches.

This is a symptom of a problem we’re all familiar with – the tendency of the city to pursue “sexy” projects of dubious need, usually for the benefit of wealthy interests, while the most basic projects are given short shrift.  The working poor wait out in the heat so that tourists enjoy a more iconic ride to the French Quarter.

The worst of it is, the lack of a shelter near Elk and Canal is a long-term problem.  There was a prominent masonry transit shelter in the neutral ground back before most streetcar lines were removed, but even as bus lines coalesced around the location, nothing was done to build a new one.

The situation is akin to that experienced by the City of Los Angeles in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  As is common, light rail was built and bus service was cut.  Ultimately the NAACP sued alleging that the city was sacrificing transit that served poor minority populations in favor of sexy light rail projects to serve predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods.

It is understandable that city officials blame budgetary woes for major gaps in our infrastructure.  What is less understandable is that the city’s failure to prioritize.

There’s constant chattering about rail extensions, new bureaucracies, and even tearing down an elevated freeway.  Meanwhile, a major transit hub has virtually no infrastructure with people spilling out into the street.  It’s not the only example of basic city services falling short, but it stands out rather prominently.

A shelter for a major transit hub should not be expensive.  It’s not the type of budget-busting project that one would expect to face funding difficulties.  Nevertheless, the political momentum has only materialized recently, and it’s unclear whether it will actually yield results.

At least for now we’re hearing more consensus on the City Council that something needs to be done.  The question will remain whether a transit shelter is sexy enough to maintain the council’s interest, or whether it will be relegated to the bottom of the pile along with fixing potholes and maintaining streetlights.

I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed.

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.

  14 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Disgrace at Elk Place”

  1. The neighborhood appearance should improve when the new apartments open. I think we’re going to be living with a derelict Loew’s theater for a while. It would be nice to have a downtown transit hub, but using the sidewalks doesn’t work, and the neutral ground is really too small. I hope nobody moves Molly the Marine. The RTA needs to acquire one of the empty lots on or near Canal and do something major.

  2. I read somewhere that there was talk of rebuilding a structure like the old Southern Railway terminal on the median between the Saenger and Krauss. That’s an ideal locatioin. It doesn’t even really have to be enclosed – just covered, with chairs/benches and some electronics to let people know when their buses are coming.

    • Well, you need room for the buses too. I would not dismiss neutral ground locations out of hand, but I think most are too small. Of course any proposed location would have to be studied. Most transit stops need some shelter, but that is a different need than a transit hub or station where many lines converge and transfers are made. I’m still unclear why most lines terminate at Canal. People are not headed downtown to MB anymore. I would think more cross town and long line routes are needed.

  3. As much sympathy that I have for the transit riders and the deplorable conditions they must suffer riding our buses … I have more than equal sympathy for the businesses located next to the bus stops. I was a member of the artist cooperative VERVE located at 1110 Canal street … right there in the midst of all the transferring riders. And drug dealers and prostitutes and pimps carrying small babies. Guns. Knives. Only occasionally were the police able to arrest the baddies. It took a recent killing to get a little attention. but it seemed that no one cares about the businesses on Canal Street. So we had to close down. things got too dangerous after a trio beat one of the business owners. Ugly place. Thanks Downtown Development and all the civic leaders out there.

    • pfvayda,

      I tend to agree, although I sympathize with both riders and businesses equally. The lack of good facilities is part of the problem with littering and bad behavior. A proper hub should be properly maintained and monitored for everyone’s benefit.

      • I agree that riders should be served. But businesses need to be served as well if they are to stay open. And watching 2 teen females and 1 large male beat a slightly built man in front of his legitimate shop was disgraceful. Thank goodness someone came to his aid. I wish the city would do the same to that general location. and the hot spots tend to be bus stops. The selling of drugs, which I have witnessed, should not be allowed out in the open on Canal Street. Someone is not doing their job.

  4. This is beyond overdue. Other medium sized cities like Orlando, Charlotte, Austin, Albuquerque, even Knoxville all have dedicated transit centers. As Joanne mentioned, the median across from the Saenger would be a decent location if nothing else.

    Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that the needs of transit riders were pushed to the bottom of the pile and not just by the RTA. http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2012/03/lakeview_transfer_station_prop.html

  5. Deux,

    The neutral ground used to work — there was a large shelter there until 1955. In any event, the Ride New Orleans report goes through some workable options.

  6. I find it troubling that this discussion is drifting towards framing transit riders and businesses in opposition, and in particular towards criminalizing transit riders who are on the whole, as primarily low income African Americans, the most likely to be underserved or victimized both by criminals and the NOPD. How about we look at the snarl of Elks place and work on a better plan for everyone. How about, for that matter, we question a transit “system” that requires changing busses to cross Canal street? And, please, let’s the merits of a privatized bus system so inefficient that it loses revenue through Tulane running private shuttles and costs all of us additional tax dollars (and overburdens school budgets) through schools having to provide bussing so students can get to class safely and on time. As Owen points out above, how about questioning economic development planning that prioritizes fun for visitors over long term stability for residents? Pfvayda, many, many people are not doing their jobs.

    • Suzanne,

      I agree that pitting riders vs. businesses misses the point. However, I don’t think the privatization of RTA’s management has made problems worse. The hole we’re in was dug by RTA over the years and by external political influences that continue to disregard the needs of bus users.

    • SJ:I agree that many people are not doing their job. and I am not trying to pin anything on transit riders as versus business owners. I am simply reporting the facts about activity in the 1100 block of Canal Street. Most of the riders are honest working people who need transportation, who are trying to get from one place to another. What the area does not need is the collection of drug dealers, pimps and young women working at selling their bodies. Babies in hand. Another note, while many of the working public use the public transportation to move around the city the riders I have seen include just as many students with a bit of tourists thrown in. Many came in to our shop. Others just hung out in front of the door making it impossible for visitors/customers to walk in. We spoke with the DDD, talked to Cantrell, called the police, wrote letters. Finally we had to close up the shop. So who wins?

  7. Now that the last ferry leaves at 6:30pm Mon-Thurs all of the commuters heading across the river are now forced to add to the crowding at Elks. A lot of the service industry folks have moved to the East bank because that bus stop was so dangerous they were afraid to use it. The ferry landing is in sad shape, but RTA is set to receive millions to fix it up. It’s location & size make it a natural place for a transit hub.

  8. Before making things look pretty, service needs to increase more. Adding more buses to certain routes and covering areas that are not….
    Cleaning the area shouldn’t be an issue is people learned to put their trash in the cans there. What is also needed, getting rid of the drug dealers that hang out all day. I seen at least 6 fist fights start there in the pass year.

    • Monique,

      I think having shelter and seating is about more than aesthetics, though. Likewise, there does need to be some sanitation because littering will always occur. RTA has made some service improvements and should continue making them, but I think the time has come to make a major transit shelter a priority.

      However, you do point out another important fact — that there needs to be a better police presence there. To the extent there is drug dealing, fighting and littering, it’s a law enforcement problem.

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