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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis November 2, 2012
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New Orleans Rail: A Historic Asset Paving the Way to a Brighter Future
BY JUSTIN T. AUGUSTINE III, Vice President, Veolia Transportation North America, and Chief Executive Officer, Regional Transit Authority, New Orleans, LA
The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in New Orleans has been on the forefront of the light rail system renaissance in major metropolitan areas for decades. At present, the RTA operates three rail lines: the historic St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, the bustling Canal Street Streetcar, and the majestic Riverfront Streetcar.
These lines serve three of the busiest transportation corridors in the city, moving more than 15,000 riders to work, school, and entertainment venues every day.
The light rail system, or streetcars as they are lovingly called in New Orleans, has been a staple of the city’s public transit network for generations. The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar is the oldest continuously running street railway system in the world, operating continuously for more than 175 years.
The other New Orleans light rail lines were replaced by bus service in the period between the late 1940s and the early 1960s; preservationists worked with the RTA and the city government to protect the St. Charles Avenue Line and secured historic landmark status for this iconic line. That action provided the base for the RTA to launch a return to rail well ahead of other U.S. cities.
The RTA successfully developed and built the Riverfront Streetcar in 1988. This scenic line, nestled between the French Quarter and the banks of the Mississippi River, connects the convention center with the French Market—helping to drive business to the area’s small, locally owned boutiques, restaurants, and novelty shops.
The original Canal Streetcar was removed and replaced with bus service in the 1960s. Forty years later, in 2004, the RTA returned rail to the corridor to provide improved access to the Central Business District. This project, funded by $17 million in federal grants and $4 million in RTA funds, spurred a resurgence and renaissance in the residential neighborhoods along the line. Tragically, these newly built railcars sufferered severe damage from the floods during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Recognizing the importance of this rail line to revitalization of the community, the agency and its craftsmen completely rebuilt and refurbished all 31 red Canal Street streetcars and returned the line to service in 2006. Since then, the surrounding business and residential area has seen an economic boost: small and boutique businesses and restaurants thrive and a $38 million shopping center is set to open along the corridor. It has also become a neighborhood of choice for families and individuals.
In February 2010, the Board of Commissioners of the RTA—along with the management team of its private operating partner, Veolia Transportation—secured a $45 million federal Transit Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for a new rail project. The agency broke ground on the Loyola Avenue/Union Passenger Terminal streetcar expansion project that June.
This line will improve access to the city’s transit network from the Central Business District and reduce travel time among residential areas, employment centers, and major activity centers. It will also improve connectivity among convention, tourism, entertainment, energy, health care and biosciences facilities and enhance livability for downtown residents.
Investors understand the benefits of this new streetcar line. Mega-developments along the corridor include the $243 million renovation of the recently reopened Hyatt Regency Hotel, a planned $100 million office-sports-entertainment complex, a $185 million “transit-oriented” apartment–retail development, and a major supermarket. The project has been the impetus for more than $2 billion in private investment to date.
With a completion date scheduled for mid-January 2013, the new line should play a major role in New Orleans hosting the 2013 Super Bowl due to its proximity to the local football arena and festivities surrounding this event.
Most recently, RTA has entered the final design phase of its next rail project. The agency, working with the Veolia Transportation management team, issued a successful $75 million sales tax bond in 2010 to finance this next phase of its ambitious streetcar expansion project.
This new line, which will connect to the Canal Streetcar line and travel down North Rampart Street to Elysian Fields Avenue, will provide a significant population with direct access to employment opportunities in the Central Business District. In advance of ground breaking expected in 2014, this project has already encouraged investment, such as major projects to restore historic buildings along its projected route and development of housing, business, and entertainment venues already underway.
The agency continues in its efforts to secure additional available dollars to expand the light rail network throughout the community and serve as an economic engine driving growth, investment, and jobs creation in New Orleans. The agency recognizes that existing and future rail lines breathe life into the transportation system and the economy.
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