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The New Orleans streetcars: Present and future developments

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted November 1, 2004

In August of 2001 construction began on the Canal Street streetcar line. To find out where the impetus for bringing back the Canal Street line came from, I asked Sidney Barthelemy, the mayor of New Orleans from 1986 to '94, and he said, "We were looking at economic development, and we had a study done by the Urban Land Institute, and one of the things they recommended to help revitalize Canal Street was to return the streetcars to Canal Street. We got the preliminary funding to start that process." But, of course, the preliminary funding didn't include New Orleans' 20 per cent matching funds.

In 1985, voters in New Orleans passed a one-cent sales tax for transit, and the language on the ballot specifically exempted the city's hotels and motels. The RTA claimed this exemption was illegal under the state constitution, and in 1999, told the city to start collecting the tax on room occupancy. Circuit District Court Judge Terri Love found in favor of RTA, but the Greater New Orleans Hotel-Motel Association vowed to appeal.

By August 2000, an agreement was reached between the two parties. A story on June 1, 2000 in the Times-Picayune said, "RTA Chairman Robert Tucker credited Mayor Marc Morial, who has made the streetcar project a top priority, with bringing together all sides in a thorny dispute that threatened to jeopardize more than $100 million in federal assistance. ‘But for his (Morial's) efforts, we'd be going to court not to make peace, but to make war,' Tucker said." Basically, the deal splits up the revenue from the tax, some of it going to the RTA, and some to the tourism industry. The revenue that the RTA collected allowed it to borrow the necessary matching funds giving it the resources to begin construction.

The streetcar line on Canal Street from the Mississippi River, which connects to the Riverfront Line (allowing the Riverfront cars to travel to Willow Street Barn for maintenance), down Canal past Carrollton to the City Park Cemetery with a spur on Carrollton over to Beauregard Circle at the Art Museum, was completed and open to the public on April 18 of this year, and has been a smashing success beyond any expectations. In the three month period from May to July 2004, ridership on the Canal Street corridor was up 260,000 on the streetcars compared to 2003 when there were buses only.

When I asked Pat Judge at the RTA about the influence of the Riverfront Streetcar, he said, "A lot of the current project is based on the success of the riverfront streetcar. It took our fear away that it would work. The riverfront demonstrated that people like streetcars and will ride them… (and) it gave us the proof we needed to go forward with our other rail ideas" (One has to be impressed that [1] Judge admitted the RTA was wrong with their original thinking about the Riverfront streetcar project, and [2] Amdall gave equal credit to both the success of the RTC's riverfront project and the RTA's St. Charles refurbishment project for the current thinking about streetcars.)

What about the future? One dream, along with expanding the Riverfront line in both directions, is bringing back a "Desire Line." While it wouldn't follow the original line through the French Quarter, it would go down Rampart onto St. Claude, and, according to Judge, "St. Claude is our third busiest corridor. We're seeing it as a big transit improvement, because we would provide that service with a streetcar, and the buses that are coming from certain areas on the other side of the line, we would turn into express buses. If you're on a bus coming from further out of town, your ride should definitely get better." He also mentioned that the new line would pass through a couple of historic neighborhoods, Bywater, and Faubourg Marigny, where people are fixing up older homes, and putting in really good restaurants. "There's real hope the streetcars would enhance that."

Which brings one back to thinking about why the Desire Line, and every other line except the St. Charles, was terminated by 1964. There were two things driving that dynamic: making a profit by cutting costs, and serving the public. Buses could pick up people closer to their getting on point, and let them off closer to their point of destination, without annoying transfers, at a cheaper cost. No one was thinking in terms of "charm," or "historical," or anything else except what mode of travel was the most efficient for the people.

In their The Streetcars of New Orleans, Hennick and Charlton wrote, "It takes no great explaining to show that saving the (streetcar) lines was not the responsibility of NOPSI. The company is not an historical foundation. Rather, it is a private enterprise in business for one and only one purpose – to make a fair return on operations that satisfy owners and investors after all expenses have been paid…. The task – if not duty – of saving the streetcars…rested on the New Orleans city government." A task they did not perform. But I would argue that even the city government shouldn't be "blamed." Streetcars lost money. Period. My sense as to what has changed since 1964 is that, beginning with the World's Fair, tourism has grown so much, that, at least some of these lines can make money, both as a mode of travel for the locals, as it used to be, and as a charming part of a wonderful historic city.

I might add that the streetcar phenomenon is not confined to New Orleans. Jennifer Harper in The Washington Times (10/24/04), wrote, "America has struck up a new love affair with old-fashioned transportation…About two dozen U.S. cities and towns have streetcar lines and about 40 others have streetcar projects in the works." Harper points out that the appeal has broad support over the political spectrum. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Democrat from Oregon, "introduced a bill in Congress that champions the streetcar as a prime component of urban 'livability, economy and green' thinking. And she quotes Enter Stage Right contributor Paul Weyrich (and chairman of the Free Congress Foundation) as "…(concluding) that streetcars could only enhance the renewed interest nationwide in old-fashioned town centers and traditional neighborhoods." Is this a great country, or what? 

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

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