Mar 192015

Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

New Orleans streetcars are our version of light rail transit, and they have made living in the city’s core more attractive.

We know of a one-car family on Carrollton Avenue. The wife uses the SUV to ferry the three kids back and forth and handle the other daily necessities of life. The man of the house only needs to look as far as his neighborhood streetcar to give him access to downtown New Orleans.

Though the new streetcar construction project now underway along Rampart/St. Claude spawned lawsuits as persnickety residents claimed it would only be used by tourists, streetcars have been an important economic development stimulus and an integral part of our city’s transportation network since 1831.

That first line connected “downtown” New Orleans with its outlying suburbs. Citizens could use public transit including suburban rail lines, horse-drawn or mule drawn omnibus lines out to Lake Pontchartrain or up and down the Mississippi River. Prior to electrification, horsecar companies and lines operated on many streets across the city including Carrollton, Jackson, Louisiana, Napoleon, Esplanade, Canal, Magazine, Prytania, Dauphine, Annunciation, Coliseum, Tchoupitoulas, Clio, Carondelet, Dryades, Tulane, Broad, Girod and Poydras

While New Orleans has always been lucky about cobbling together the funding – from federal grants, bonds and other sources – for an ongoing number of streetcar projects, other cities across America are rethinking the use of streetcars.

Street car expansion projects — touted as harbingers of economic growth — are still underway in other cities such as Tucson, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City. In some cities, projects which have been in the planning stages sometimes for years will never be built.

In fall 2014, Arlington, Virginia put their plans aside for a streetcar project that was being hailed as a tool to rebuild a blighted corridor. A $26 million preliminary engineering contract had already been awarded. The District of Columbia had been planning to spend $160 million to return trolleys to the nation’s capital after more than 50 years of inactivity. Those plans are now on hold but city leaders still hope the project can be revived.

Fiscal and operational challenges have also stalled streetcar revival projects. In San Antonio a new $92 Million streetcar project was cancelled due to changing political climate.

Politics has never doomed the New Orleans streetcar. City leaders would like to find a way to extend the St. Claude line all the way to St. Bernard Parish, but have several logistical hurdles including the Press Street Railroad tracks and the Industrial Canal Bridge.

During this construction phase, traffic moves slowly down Rampart Street. Parking will be tough this weekend for the Congo Square Rhythms Festival. But eventually even the Mardi Gras Indians will be able to ride the streetcar to Armstrong Park.

Already popular in Northern Europe, a “rapid streetcar” movement catching steam across America and being considered a substitute for light rail. Capital costs for light rail transit systems range widely and continue to escalate. Such systems are already in place in a number of cities in West Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Traditional streetcar technology is refocused to provide faster surface-routed rail service at a modest cost. There are several New Orleans neighborhoods that would be a great test market for a fasting moving streetcar. Let’s hope funding becomes available soon.

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several television programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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