When City Councilwoman Susan Guidry visited comedian and activist Jonah Bascle in the hospital last month shortly before his death at age 28, she vowed to carry his fight forward to make public transportation in New Orleans accessible to the disabled — specifically, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line.
Last week, with Bascle’s friends and supporters gathered in the City Council chambers, Guidry reiterated that she intends to make good on that promise sooner rather than later.
Bascle, who died last month following complications relating to muscular dystrophy, was recognized and honored by Guidry and other council members at the beginning of the Jan. 8 City Council meeting. Bascle brought awareness to the city’s lack of transportation accessibility for people with disabilities by serving on the Mayor’s Advisory Council for Citizens with Disabilities, and ran as a candidate for mayor in 2010, and briefly considered a run for City Council against Guidry last year.
Guidry visited Bascle in the hospital in November to present him a proclamation from the City Council as well as certificates from Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Congressman Cedric Richmond.
“It was an experience I will not forget, and I was very honored to be a part of that before we lost him,” Guidry said. “When I last spoke with Jonah, I promised him I would keep working toward our shared goal of making the streetcar accessible on St. Charles Avenue — even if he wasn’t threatening to run against me. As a matter of fact, I’m in recent talks with the RTA about that.”
Bascle’s mother, Sue Bascle, brother, Jesse Bascle, and step-father, Jimmy Ford were at the council meeting. They were accompanied by family friends, Cassie Catalanotto, Jimmy Fahrenholtz, Page McCranie, and Larry Bagneris.
Fahrenholtz, member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for Citizens with Disabilities, spoke about Bascle’s passion for transportation issues, especially the inability of people with disabilities to ride the streetcars on the St. Charles Avenue line. Bascle noticed that every advertisement inviting people to come to New Orleans included images of the Saint Charles Avenue streetcar, Fahrenholtz said.
“That streetcar was always prominent in those ads,” Fahrenholtz said. “Jonah couldn’t ride them.”
Fahrenholtz said that Bascle spoke with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, but was told that nothing could be done.
“We went to the RTA and asked what could be done and basically had the door slammed in our faces,” Fahrenholtz said. “We were told that there was absolutely nothing that can be done because it was a national historic registered site. The streetcar was historic.”
A frequently suggested compromise has been to move some of the red streetcars from the Canal Street line, which are handicap accessible, to St. Charles Avenue. But Fahrenholtz said that federal regulations would actually allow the green streetcars on St. Charles to be adapted, contrary to what has local leaders have always said.
“We will come back to the transportation meeting in just a short period of time and show where we have been lied to about conforming to the needs for our people,” Fahrenholtz said.
Fahrenholtz urged the council to find a solution.
“When the Saints were in trouble, we found hundreds of dollars for the Superdome. Every time we want the Super Bowl or the Final Four, we find millions of dollars to give to people to come here and ride the streetcar,” Fahrenhotlz said. “It is time we find the money to help our citizens live full lives in this city, to ride that streetcar.”
Guidry said Councilman Jared Brossett, chair of the transportation committee, has agreed to add the issue to the agenda “in the very near future.” She also mentioned that she has taken up the issue with the Chief Executive Officer of RTA herself.
“I have spoken with Justin Augustine with RTA and told him that he needs to come here with documentation to show RTA’s position and support that they are making progress, and that this is going to happen in the foreseeable future, which is something that he has told me,” Guidry said.
Brossett said that he has been working on taxicab accessibility — another issue Bascle championed — and “we think we found the solution.” Council-member-at-large and Vice President, Jason Williams, also promised that Bascle’s transportation issues would not go unanswered.
“He was fearless about this in his very young life. I consider him to be a public servant same way we are,” Williams said. He added, “That fight based on what I have seen here today and what I know is going to happen is not going to be over until his goal is accomplished.”
Cassie Catalanotto, a family friend, spoke about Bascle’s strong spirit and encouraged the council to complete what Bascle set out to do.
“He never complained about having muscular dystrophy and he never complained about being confined to a wheelchair,” Catalanotto said. She continued, “He knew that there are things that you can change and things that you cannot, so let’s change one of the things that we can, and add wheelchair accessibility to the St. Charles line.”