There is also an aggressive streetcar expansion program underway. “We were the proud recipients of Tiger I funding,” Augustine says. “We received a $45M grant from the federal government to expand our streetcar program here in New Orleans.”
A short time ago the RTA received another grant, $400,000 from the Department of Transportation that is being matched by in-kind services of the RTA and by a $40,000 scholarship gift from Veolia, to create an apprenticeship program to train young people to be artisans and craftsmen on the streetcar rebuild effort.
“We took the technical college and we worked with the State Workforce One Development Program and approached them with a need in terms of how craftsmen and artisans at the streetcar are skilled individuals in these crafts and learn on the job,” Augustine explains. “As our population ages, we need to make sure we have a younger population coming up to continue that trade.
“We have taken 20 young people that were given scholarships for technical training. For 18 months we’re going to train them in the different disciplines of the streetcar process and that will ensure us a good work force that we can use subsequent to them graduating.”
In addition, the RTA is also going through the streetcar rebuild and rehab program on the green cars in the fleet, 35 of them. The RTA received a federal grant to hire additional staff for that restoration process. That staff, along with the apprenticeship program, will provide the skilled individuals within the service operations.
An important part of the work at the RTA is positioning the system to better itself and to prevent situations like this from re-occurring. On the facility side, working with FEMA, it was to redesign the electrical system so that the point is higher above the flood gauge line. “Everything is now on platforms.”
Augustine explains. “In terms of the whole entire electrical grid, it’s been placed on a second-story level that’s 14 feet above where the flood lines were.” He adds, “We feel very comfortable, at least we will never lose electrical grid again.” Everything has also been encapsulated and protected, so there is better waterproofing than before.
The fleet is also more mobile than before. With agreements with other entities throughout the state, if the order has been given to evacuate, the rolling stock can be moved out. “In 24 hours we can empty the fleet out,” Augustine says. “We can get it out of harm’s way and at least it won’t get destroyed and have a similar situation occur again.”
The St. Charles streetcar line is the oldest, continuously operated rail line in the entire world which is amazing after all it’s been through, Augustine says. The streetcars are on their own tracks, so in case of emergency conditions, they would be brought to the river, the highest point in the city. The RTA is working to negotiate with a trucking company that if it’s a category 5-type hurricane closing in, a trucking company could potentially flatbed the streetcars out of the area.
A mobile command center would provide a place where they could operate the system off-site. The vehicle is housed at the facility and can be driven away in case of evacuation. “It can cut payroll checks, run dispatching and scheduling, and we can literally maintain our asset base and the movement of our assets via that mobile center,” says Augustine.
“The evacuation process has been refined to deal with the changing conditions,” he says. “All of the employees have been retrained on the evacuation efforts in terms of asset protection procedures. We’re a lot more prepared to deal with an impending storm of that severity than we were before.”
Rebuilding the Community
The biggest challenge facing the RTA is keeping up with the growth rate. The population has continued to increase, as has the ridership. The agency is also looking to go regional in the next five years, Augustine says. “It’s an opportunity, a truly regional opportunity, to take public transportation from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and to the North Shore using all the various modes of transportation.”