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The New Orleans streetcars: The comeback

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted October 18, 2004

The story of the streetcar's comeback in New Orleans begins with the World's Fair, held in New Orleans in 1984. The Fair drew some eight million people, many of them, of course, to the French Quarter and the riverfront. The CSX railroad which owned railroad tracks that went along the riverfront, decided they would no longer run their freight-rail cars along that corridor, because, in their opinion, with all the tourists, their liability was too great. The tracks were abandoned. The Corps of Engineers decided to relocate the floodwall in the track right-of-way, but two groups worked against this idea. One was the City Planning Commission, headed by Bob Becker, joined by local attorney William Borah. This group was against the Corps for esthetic reasons. The other group, the Riverfront Transit Coalition (RTC), was against the Corps because of their dream of putting a streetcar line in that corridor.

The RTC was a group that represented development interests, both public and private, from the foot of the French Quarter at Esplanade (one corner of the French Quarter) at the river, along the French Quarter, past Canal Street, to the Mississippi River Bridge, and beyond, roughly 2 miles. A study done by an engineering consultant called DMJM was conducted to determine the feasibility of running a streetcar line along the river. In May of 1985, the study concluded that it was basically a "no-brainer." The track was available, and there was a real need for public transportation in this corridor.

Enter James Amdall, who, it could be argued, is responsible for the current resurgence of the streetcars in New Orleans. Amdall was President of the Riverfront Transit Coalition from 1984 until 1991, and he co-chaired an event called "Riverfront Awareness" that took place after the World's Fair. The mayor of New Orleans at the time, "Dutch" Morial, who was present at this event, publicly endorsed the Riverfront Streetcar project (partly because they needed something good to follow up after the Fair which was an economic disaster, losing hundreds of millions of dollars). Amdall: "The Mayor directed the newly formed Regional Transit Authority (RTA, who inherited the assets of NOPSI, including all the streetcars, plus the buses, and the property), and our group to work together and do this project. Needless to say, the RTA was not happy that somebody other than they had come up with this idea, and they were anything but supporting." (In a conversation I had with Pat Judge at the RTA, he admitted, "We were working with them [the Riverfront Transit Coalition] for awhile, but we went into it reluctantly because we saw it as a kind of glorified amusement ride. But the day we opened, we were more than pleasantly surprised, and it has worked really well.")

About six weeks after the "Riverfront Awareness" event, Donald Mintz, then with the Downtown Development District, requested a meeting with Amdall. At the meeting, Mintz suggested they contact then U.S. Congresswoman Lindy Boggs (who happened to be on the Appropriations Committee, which was helpful), the widow of Congressman Hale Boggs (and mother of Cokie Roberts). So, Amdall and Mark Cooper, the executive director of RTC, sent Boggs an information packet, and she liked the idea. She contacted Ralph Stanley, the then federal administrator of the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA). In Amdall's words: "That sweet lady invited him into her office, sat him down, gave him a cup of tea, and was as genteel and as nice as she could be. Lo, and behold, he agreed that if the project was deemed financially feasible, the feds would put in their contribution to the project (the formula for these kinds of projects is the Feds: 80 per cent, local: 20 per cent). We put in 1.2 million; they put in 2.7 million for phase one, which was a single track with a passing siding and four vehicles."

In December of that year (1985), Amdall got a telephone call from the regional administrator of UMTA, Wilber Hare from Ft. Worth. Hare said that UMTA would finance a financial feasibility study, and it would be coordinated with Amdall's group and the Rice Center, a think tank in Houston. The money was given to RTA with the stipulation that the RTC would gather the data, turn it over to the Rice Center, and they would crunch the numbers. (Amdall: "Ultimately what they were looking for was how much money this would lose every year.")

The Rice Center hired a Boston PhD, who told Amdall that he had a perfect model for predicting ridership: the elevated, automated, very ultramodern Detroit People Mover. Amdall confronted him: "Doctor, are you seriously going to consider modeling a vintage antiquated streetcar on a riverfront that is going to basically serve a tourist population with an automated, driverless, elevated circulating monorail that only serves a very limited number of office workers, not tourists?" The doctor replied, "I am indeed." Disgusted, Amdall could see he was fighting forces working against the project.

The final number that the PhD (name withheld for fear of litigation) came up with was that the system would lose $477,000 a year. The RTA told the RTC that it would have to come up with a proportionate share of the operating loss. Amdall: "I had to go back to my guys and say, ‘Wait a minute, the game's changed: we're going to have to pledge (in addition to the 1.2 mil) an additional $200,000 per year for three years if in fact this project does not perform the way we think it will.' That cost me probably 18 months of work. Ultimately, I got the commitments." By then it was the fall of 1987.

A very fortuitous thing happened that fall: The Republican National Committee chose New Orleans as the host city for the Republican presidential convention. All of a sudden the RTA became interested in the Riverfront Streetcar Project. They called Amdall and told him they would commit to the project if he could have it up and running on the day before the convention, which would be August 15 of 1988. That gave the RTC from October '87 to August '88 to start from an idea to a completed project. They had no design, no contracts, no streetcars, and no clearance from the endless regulations from environmental to historical commissions, hurdles that would convince most reasonable people to give up. However, that's not the way Amdall and his group thought. They had never dealt with all these problems before so they had no reason to think they couldn't do it.

The first thing they had to do was to get a commitment from the feds called a "letter of no prejudice," which would let them spend their money and get reimbursed or have it go towards their match. The process started in November, and by the end of January, nothing had happened. Time was wasting! On February 1st, the treasurer of RTC, Leo Breckenridge, happened to be attending a seminar on mixed-use development in Palm Springs. It turned out the keynote speaker, Al Dela Bovi, was the acting administrator of UMTA. At the coffee break, Breckenridge went up to Dela Bovi, and told him that UMTA was holding their project up, and they needed him to sign the "letter of no prejudice" so they could get their money. It turns out that Dela Bovi had a "letter of no prejudice" document with him, and Breckenridge made sure it was signed, and they were off to the races.

Next week: The hurdles Amdall and his group had to overcome to meet the deadline.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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