Owen Courreges: What will the Rampart tourist trolley cost New Orleans in public transportation?

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Owen Courreges

Transit for the poor? What a curious thought.

Although in theory a primary purpose of transit is to provide necessary transportation for those too poor to afford a reliable vehicle, the reality is that the poor are generally the ones who are shortchanged.

Take the case of Los Angeles: In 1992, after years of receiving the bum’s rush at meetings of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), activist Eric Mann founded the Bus Rider’s Union to represent the oft-neglected users of public transit, users who were predominantly poor minorities.

In 1996, with representation from the NAACP, the union filed a civil rights suit against the MTA. The lawsuit alleged that the MTA was spending increasing amounts of its scarce resources on light rail projects for the whiter, more-affluent, suburbs, while cutting bus service in poorer neighborhoods.

The MTA quickly folded and entered into a consent decree that promised significant improvements to bus service and set achievable benchmarks.

New Orleans isn’t doing much better than Los Angeles was in 1996. Just this past week, Corinne Ramey of Slate penned an article titled “America’s Unfair Rules of the Road” which highlighted the appalling degree to which cities discriminate against the poor in transportation planning. Ramey cited New Orleans as a prime example of the phenomenon.

“[L]ongtime New Orleans residents say that some buses serving low-income and minority neighborhoods haven’t been seen since before the storm, and others have wait times so long that the buses are practically useless,” Ramey wrote. “[A] full seven years after the storm, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority had restored 77 percent of trips to the streetcar lines, but only 29 percent of its bus routes.”

For its part, RTA has since engaged in some expansions of bus service. However, its largest effort seems to surround the Rampart Streetcar Line, for which ground was broken a little over a month ago. The projected cost? $71 million — and expect that number to increase significantly.

The Rampart Streetcar will largely serve tourists and more affluent riders in the inner-core. The line will only go to Elysian Fields, and thus will avoid going to poorer, more underserved neighborhoods.

Hence, the Rampart Streetcar is yet another symptom of the favoritism the city shows to affluent riders over the working poor. Instead of dedicating all available resources to restoring adequate bus service, we’re investing in yet another tourist trolley. One wonders if our transit planners aren’t simply puppets with the hands of well-heeled developers shoved up their keisters.

Others have noticed this. In January, Peter Horjus, writing for The Lens, opined that “I live just blocks from the Elysian Fields terminus, and I can see no benefits to public transportation in my area from this costly new infrastructure.”

Horjus noted that three bus lines already run all or part of the Rampart Streetcar route. Although RTA has bizarrely declined to state how it plans on dealing with these bus lines after the streetcar line is completed, Horjus did manage to get an RTA employee to concede that some changes and cuts in bus service were likely.

Based on his discussion, Horjus ultimately concluded that “service in these areas would be the same or worse than it is now.”

“Bottom line: This streetcar is not for downriver residents; it’s for tourists,” Horjus continued. “It’s a 1.6-mile ‘tourist trolley,’ not a commuter line, and it duplicates bus lines in an area already well served (at least by RTA standards.)”

One would hope that there would be a wellspring of community opposition to this blatant dedication of scarce funds to a dubious streetcar line for the benefit of tourists and developers, but alas, there is not.

Ride New Orleans, the local nonprofit that advocates for transit improvements, supports the Rampart streetcar expansion. Its website specifically advocates for “affordable, transit-oriented development around key transit corridors, such as Loyola and St Claude Avenues.” In other words, Ride New Orleans is on the side of developers who want to use taxpayer-funded streetcar projects as a means to promote inner-city residential redevelopment, something we normally term “gentrification.”

This is regrettable, because unlike the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, Ride New Orleans wants to play both sides. It wants to support expensive rail projects and the development schemes that go with them while simultaneously being the voice of neglected bus riders. Alas, its support for bus riders rings hollow because we ultimately can’t do everything at once and it’s pretty clear which priorities are slipping by the wayside.

Buses are cheap, and low-income riders are low-hanging fruit. It shouldn’t be difficult to bolster existing bus lines and add others to better serve parts of the city that are less well-off. Indeed, it’s one of the easiest things RTA could be doing. Instead, it’s tearing up Rampart for a streetcar expansion project that is, at best, of dubious utility.

Regardless of whether bus riders finally organize to challenge this disparate, unfair treatment, we need to start fundamentally rethinking exactly what we want transit to accomplish. Presently, it doesn’t appear to be anything noble.

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.

24 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: What will the Rampart tourist trolley cost New Orleans in public transportation?

  1. One thing I have heard repeated is that the the St. Claude streetcar line was not an either/or proposition. The federal government incentivizes these capital-heavy projects, so federal money was brought down that would not have existed if the RTA was simply expanding bus services. So it’s a little disingenuous to operate under the assumption that the RTA was sitting on $40M and decided to do this project with it. That being said, I definitely think the federal government should re-think their strategy for transportation infrastructure funding. (Marketing campaigns for existing bus services would be a thought!) Also, I know RIDE New Orleans have been strong advocates for the expansion of the street car past Elysian Fields for the exact reasons you state.

    • Andrew,

      That’s generally true, but not completely applicable here. With the Rampart Streetcar, the bulk of the cost is being paid for by a $41.5 million from bond sales in 2010. The bond money has to be used because the feds refused a request for an additional $50 million after it paid for the Loyola line (which, if anything, actually reduced overall transit mobility).

      I do agree that the federal government needs to stop throwing money at rail projects, but the truth is that when we leap at the money (as with the Loyola line) we’re in a worse position to request it for anything else, including additional rail funding (as happened with the Rampart line). The money isn’t completely fungible, but it is to some degree. If we elect to spend money on sexy rail projects, it will invariably impact — in a major way — the amount of money we have left to bolster bus service.

      As for Ride New Orleans supporting later expansions past Elysian Fields, it doesn’t strike me as meaningful. There’s no funding for that, and even if there were, it would have been better for the residents of the Lower Ninth to have reliable bus service now. Ride seems to think so long as it supports everything at once, it’s being a responsible advocate for transit. It doesn’t work that way.

      • I too have been deeply been effected by construction on South Claiborne Ave. Engineering -Inspection Co. From North Shore has visited and documented cracks in walls for past two years.More damage to foundation recently.This is a 94 year old home. Plates and pictures flying off walls from pounding.Those who do not live in it shouldn’t be so cavalier with their comments DJM

  2. You didn’t even mention the most ridiculous effect of these streetcars to no where. The riders on the Simon Bolivar line now need to exit at Calliope and “transfer” to the unreliable Loyola streetcar line in order to reach their fabulous service jobs in the French quarter. That line was even worse than the new rampart line as it was strictly rushed into place to impress the Super Bowl big wigs.

  3. I think the benefit of contracts for friends and contributors of the mayor is not being taken into consideration in these arguments against these less than worthwhile transit projects. If our mayor does well the poor will ultimately benefit from this rising tide.

  4. just like as in mid city or uptown and now this st claude line…many times it is just faster to walk to the cbd if you live within 3 miles. the streetcar is for tourists and now they want to turn it into a ride for handicap ppl… but if you work and pay taxes,,,just ride a bike, or etc..my final point-when was the last time ant CC spent an entire week trying to get around on RTA? I think it is a fair question,

  5. It’s a shame the RTA did not insist on building a streetcar line the length of St Claude. Other cities use streetcar lines as main routes with buses as feeders. Such a system allows the buses to be used more effectively, since they do not have to get stuck in the heavy traffic into and out of the core, and can cycle their feeder routes much more often and operate more efficiently. Where heavy ridership warrants, such as on main avenues like St Claude, streetcars are more environmental and more efficient in the long run than buses.

    • D, Turgeon,

      I don’t think it’s much of a shame because we simply can’t afford such a massive streetcar expansion project, and the opportunity cost would be that of restoring the bus network. To the extent money isn’t an object, though, I do agree — but money being scarce is precisely the reason why they’re half-assing these streetcar expansions.

      It’s a complete myth that streetcars are more environmentally sound or efficient “in the long run.” Buses run on natural gas; streetcars are powered largely by electricity generated by fossil fuels. At best it’s probably a wash environmentally. As far as long-term savings go, that’s also dubious because of the cost of maintaining the tracks. Operating costs are at least arguably similar to buses, but it’s replacing maintaining that rail infrastructure that’s so expensive and would never beat buses in a cost-benefit analysis.

      Furthermore, if you’re basically envisioning buses as “feeders” for streetcar lines, you’re already thinking of making transit inefficient. Adding transfers from buses to bolster streetcar ridership numbers is inconvenient for riders who would prefer to just stay on the bus they’re on all the way to their destination. We’ve already seen that problem with the Loyola streetcar.

      • You may very well be correct; I’m no expert in urban transit, and I’m betting you are not one, either. All I’m saying is that other cities, Toronto for example, have expanded their streetcar lines recently, rather than adding buses. Apparently, many urban planners think streetcars offer a better alternative for dense urban areas. Yes, they are expensive and perhaps the money could be better spent, but perhaps they represent an investment in a more livable city.

        • D, Turgeon,

          I’m not an expert in urban planning, but I’ve studied urban transit a great deal, both personally and in my college studies. Also, my brief work for Reason (noted in my byline) was in their “Urban Futures Program” looking into local planning and transportation issues.

          Ultimately, I think that rail transit makes sense at very high densities, but that’s only experienced in a handful of cities in this hemisphere (probably only Chicago and New York in the US). When you get to a high enough density to where rail transit is viable, I think it’s probably the case that street-level light rail is no longer cost-effective — it’s really more a matter of aesthetics, as Deux Amours aptly notes below.

          • Well, aesthetics are important. By cost-effective, I assume you mean moving the most people for the least cost. But a good urban transit plan does not focus solely on those who cannot afford an automobile. The idea is to get more people of all income classes using public transit, thereby improving the environment and easing traffic congestion. Public transit should be for the public, not just one section of the public. In order to get that increased ridership, the plan needs to offer more than just the cheapest option, which is where the aesthetics comes in. But it is more than just aesthetics. Streetcars offer a closer connection between the rider and the street instead of a means to just transit the street. Jane Jacobs was right; in the end, it’s all about building communities.

    • The railroad was not in favor of the altering the tracks at Press to allow the Streetcar to cross–that was one issue with extending the line, the other issue was funding

  6. Bus service for neighborhoods with no bus service is a chicken and egg proposition. I think RTA has a number of routes into poor neighborhoods that are largely empty, although some suggest that if only there were more buses, suddenly there would be more riders. Just what new bus route is needed that would be fully utilized? If there is such a possible line, shame on RTA (or the guys in Jefferson for that matter) for not instituting it forthwith. I think people need to accept that new streetcar projects are only marginally about transportation.Think of them as moving sculpture. I’d like to see a more active and creative RTA. Magazine Street just screams for a better and more pleasing bus design.

    • Deux,

      >>Just what new bus route is needed that would be fully utilized?<>I think people need to accept that new streetcar projects are only marginally about transportation.Think of them as moving sculpture.<<

      We agree on this, but I find it pretty revolting. In a city with such crumbling infrastructure and other pressing transit needs, making "moving sculptures" just strikes me as ridiculous.

      • The aesthetic qualities of streetcars was just an example, and there are numerous other non-transportation attributes that many people appreciate. I think new lines are perceived as giving a neighborhood cache and are a marketing aid for properties and businesses in the area. You don’t have to believe it or think it worth while, but it is pointless to compare bus lines and streetcars. They are fundamentally doing different things. If you hear of an area that could support new bus service, let us know, especially if it is uptown.

  7. Where are the poor people these days? Rent is through the roof even in the neighborhoods that were once really cheap to live in. What happens to a city that relies on tourism when the service industry can no longer afford to live in it?

  8. Agreed – I went through the construction on St. Claude last Saturday night and thought what an obstacle for all the people who live here. Now this area will suffer through the construction woes that have plagued uptown and the various housing project areas for the last 5 + years. Adding insult to injury, the Loyola rail line did not complete the construction – there are light posts without lights as you approach the train/bus terminal on Loyola. As the streetcar shares the roadway with vehicles and then splits away at Howard Ave.,t he dark area combined with poor signage and misleading lanes as the rail turns has created a danger point where the rail lane separates from the road lane. Several accidents have happened there as cars turn in the dark with bright headlights blinding drivers and the road lane splits into rail and roadway with a concrete divider. It happened to me and the policewoman who handled my incident said there have been dozens of accidents at the poorly lit curve barrier – look at the concrete curb there and see broken pieces of curb with tire marks. RTA should have put reflective signs as a warning and finished the street light component – but that is past the Superdome and tourist use, so who cares? – Plain to see the focus of the Loyola line. If the same situation plays out on dark St. Claude – watch the costs and damage to locals add up – but that is clearly not the point of these projects – all about increasing tourism, not benefiting the residents. Strange that the local government puts so much faith in “trickle down economics” or is it more a matter of increasing traffic to “favored” citizens’ businesses and property?

  9. Great piece! The shifting of the ferry to a largely ornamental role has also driven most of the service industry folks out of Algiers Point.

  10. Deux,

    I think highlighting “non-transportation attributes” of public transit projects is a mistake. First of all, it’s likely transitory. The aesthetic appeal of streetcars has certainly not been a constant; by the 1920’s, streetcars were widely derided as archaic. They couldn’t let riders off at the curb, their routes were inflexible, and they interacted badly with cars. Buses looked better.

    Unless streetcars have objective superiority aside from hard-to-remove infrastructure, I don’t see the virtue. Aiding developers doesn’t seem like a valid government goal (especially since it’s just likely consolidating development, as opposing to creating an economic basis for development that wouldn’t otherwise occur).

  11. I’m not opposed to new transit options in the city. I think it is good to see long term investment and if it ends up spurring more investment then even better.

    I am, however, not all that enthused that it is yet another streetcar. In a city that floods in a strong storm we should be exploring elevated trains.

    This would also help solve the issue of having the project go past Franklin. The streetcar will NEVER cross the NOPB tracks at Press Street and those tracks are worth more to the city than anything that is 5 blocks on either side of them. An elevated train not only moves this city past the 19th century transportation mode it is stuck in but can also (probably) get past the tracks. We got one ancient streetcar we can’t change, the rest of our system can be state of the art, efficient and future focused. Then I will know we are building for New Orleanians and not just the tourists

  12. The “Freret Jet” (12 Bus line) lost 76,000 riders in 2013
    http://www.wwltv.com/story/local/2015/03/09/14696572/
    and sacrificed for a $60,000,000 19 century thrill ride for Airbnb “travelers” and Hyatt guests.
    Alas… “we get the government we deserve”- so we drank the “economic development” kool aide- and ranted “hipster” and “gentrification” https://uptownmessenger.com/2013/03/jean-paul-villere-the-free-market-versus-gentrification/
    instead of exposing stats as lies, and following the $ on who profited in this loss of a public transit artery serving the highest incarcerated neighborhoods on earth.
    http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2012/05/louisiana_is_the_worlds_prison.html
    Mr. Correges,
    I gave up reading and commenting on UM for other reasons, but am glad you continue to ask questions that need answers. You do good work- keep it up.
    Best from 5110 Freret,
    Andy Brott

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