The Times-Picayune – The plan to expand streetcar service in New Orleans is poised to move forward next week when transit officials are expected to recommend a construction firm to build a new line along Loyola Avenue from the Union Passenger Terminal to Canal Street.
Anticipating that the process will go smoothly, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is scheduled join city officials for a ceremonial ground-breaking on June 7.
Barring unforeseen delays, RTA executives say construction should begin by midsummer. The agency hopes to open the 1.5-mile line for service in about a year.
The transit system beat long odds to secure the federal grant, which came from a $1.5 billion component of the Obama administration’s stimulus package.
The RTA application was one of 1,400 from all 50 states. In the end, the federal government awarded only 51 grants from the program. Of the 30 cities that sought money for rail projects, New Orleans was one of just three to be chosen, along with Dallas and Tucson, Ariz.
The new route will use surplus streetcars from the Canal Street and Riverfront lines. After floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina destroyed the 24 candy-apple red Canal streetcars and the six Riverfront streetcars, the RTA used $31.5 million in FEMA reimbursements to restore them.
The stimulus money was targeted for “creative projects” designed to increase business development while increasing public transit options.
In announcing the selection of the RTA proposal, federal officials noted that the Loyola corridor is home to significant commercial and business activity. Predictions that the new streetcar line would help attract new development and help redevelop underused properties along the street appear to have been on target.
Since the project was announced last year, hotel renovations, apartments and retail projects have been springing up along the strip.
The Saratoga Lofts are set to open this summer, followed by a Rouses supermarket later this year. Renovations at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans and Holiday Inn Downtown Superdome will be completed in October, and residential and retail projects are expected to begin shortly thereafter in anticipation of a growing biosciences district.
As the RTA prepares to launch the downtown Loyola line, the agency is moving forward with plans to bring streetcar service to Faubourg Marigny, Treme and St. Roch via the North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue corridor.
This week, the RTA board authorized its staff to solicit final design bids for the so-called French Quarter loop, which will travel along North Rampart and then St. Claude between Canal Street and Press Street, with a 1.2-mile spur on Elysian Fields Avenue that would connect with the Riverfront line at Esplanade Avenue.
With more than $90 million in hand to build it, RTA executives are optimistic they can begin construction late next year or early in 2013.
A second phase, which the RTA has no money for right now, would extend the line to Poland Avenue in the Upper 9th Ward.
That addition would call for streetcar tracks to cross the railroad tracks at ground level at the intersection of St. Claude and Press Street. Norfolk Southern Railway, which has final say in the matter, vehemently opposes the approach, citing safety concerns.
RTA board members said this week they are preparing to enlist members of the state’s congressional delegation and state and local elected officials to help persuade the railroad to approve the extension.
By: Frank Donze