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.