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The Streetcars of New Orleans: A National Historic Landmark

Today could be renamed “Streetcar Day at APTA 2011.” Annual Meeting attendees have several opportunities today to learn about emerging streetcar projects, as well as how the RTA in New Orleans is expanding streetcar services along a downtown corridor for which $1.1 billion in transit-oriented development is already planned and underway.

The New Orleans streetcar lines could have become extinct after the battering winds and flooding waters of Hurricane Katrina damaged the region. The St. Charles Avenue line, a National Historic Landmark with its iconic green color and distinctive look, in continual operation since 1835, suffered major damages to its wiring, overhead catenary and underground cabling systems. The Canal and Riverfront streetcars, called the “Red Ladies” due to their red paint scheme, were virtually devastated, with only two streetcars out of 32 surviving the disaster without damage.

Following Katrina, major repairs and refurbishing were required to maintain the streetcars’ important role in the mobility of New Orleans. The city relies on the streetcars, which carry close to 6 million passengers over a 26-mile distance every year. RTA officials wanted to get the streetcars in operation as quickly as possible since they were such an important symbol of the city’s recovery. The Regional Transit Authority in New Orleans immediately set to rebuilding damaged property, infrastructure and equipment and sought FEMA funding to bring the streetcar lines up and running. They restored partial service within six months and continued to restore service in phases each year until 2008 when all lines and damaged track and infrastructure were fully restored.

The National Historic Landmark distinction comes with responsibility: all repairs and maintenance must be conducted according to original craftsmanship and with tools from the early 1900s. The RTA-Veolia team operates a facility called the Carrollton Barn where artisans and craftsmen hand-build the green streetcars and use machinery according to century-old specifications. The Carrollton Barn workers offer a glimpse back in time as they hand tool, saw, paint and replace seat backs and safety devices as part of regular maintenance and upkeep for the streetcars.

To pass these unique skills on to a new generation, the RTA, Veolia and senior technicians, are working with a local community college to train future craftsmen in a streetcar trade program.

This summer, the RTA and Veolia began construction on a new streetcar expansion from Canal Street to the Union Passenger Terminal along Loyola Avenue, anticipating a completion date of summer 2012. Veolia Transportation manages and operates all agency functions under contract to the RTA. This project is a result of a TIGER grant to the RTA from the U.S. Department of Transportation, focused on creating an intermodal terminal at the Union Passenger Terminal.  Already $1.1 billion in transit-oriented development is planned along the expansion route.

The current major expansion of the streetcars now underway in New Orleans will be discussed at the Closing General Session today at 11:30 a.m. by an expert panel focusing on the transit-oriented development aspects of the project. In addition, Technical Tours of the historic streetcar facility at the RTA’s Carrollton Barn will be held this afternoon (Wednesday) and tomorrow morning (Thursday) for APTA Annual Meeting registrants. Tours of the Historic Carrollton Streetcar Barn will be held at the same time – a very special tour. If you are registered for APTA’s annual meeting, you can sign up for either or both Technical Tours at the RTA Welcome Booth near the APTA registration desk.  

To learn more, visit the RTA Welcome Booth or visit Veolia Transportation at Booth 3319.