New Orleans' Streetcar Revival

March 18, 2014

Anti-railcar movements between the 1930s and 1960s threatened the future of streetcars in New Orleans, but a few lines survived and today streetcars are making a resurgence with residents and tourists alike. The Big Easy currently is home to three streetcar lines, including one of the world’s oldest, the St. Charles, which has operated since the mid-1800s with only an 18-month interruption following Hurricane Katrina. The St. Charles is joined by the Canal Street Line and the Riverfront Line.

With the city deeply engaged in an unprecedented and ambitious economic recovery program, spurred largely by the post-Katrina recovery efforts, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) engaged HDR to identify long-term public transportation investments in the central business district (CBD), the historic French Quarter and newly re-emerging neighborhoods.

Big Plans for the Big Easy

The New Orleans CBD/French Quarter Corridor Alternatives Analysis (AA) was conducted under the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) project development process. The post-Katrina economic recovery program dictated an accelerated schedule for the AA to help the city realize deeply needed economic gains. Therefore, project planners executed a practical, expedited approach, incorporating previously completed work and condensing technical analyses to eliminate lengthy and fruitless research, and to identify new streetcar corridors in the study area. The AA schedule was shortened from the typical 18 months to an abbreviated, but intensive, 12-month process. Concurrent with the study, the New Orleans RTA is exploring potential partnerships and cooperative agreements with other public and quasi-public organizations to expedite new streetcar loops into service.

The study assumed a comprehensive approach that examined the inter-relationship of economic development and city “placemaking.” The focus was on fixed rail projects that encourage development of a healthy pedestrian realm, essential to the creation of a livable and financially sustainable urban center. The AA examined bus and streetcar interface and assessed the potential benefit of a phased streetcar buildout program that will ultimately provide effective service coverage throughout New Orleans.

HDR worked with local community leaders and stakeholders to identify alignments that would improve linkages between neighborhoods and major activity centers, such as the CBD, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the Superdome, the Port of New Orleans and the historic French Quarter entertainment district. Existing Canal Street and Riverfront streetcar lines will be central urban transit spines in the expanded streetcar system.

Development of the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal (UPT) as a central intermodal transfer hub is integral to the project. Through the AA, the study team has investigated opportunities to complement development plans underway to encourage riders to park on the edge of the redeveloping sections of the central business district, and use streetcars to travel throughout the CBD and French Quarter. This would mitigate traffic congestion, improve pedestrian mobility and support the sustainability of New Orleans as an international destination.

The AA was completed in May 2009, and results were presented in a final public meeting. Community residents and activists offered spirited, passionate commentary, and voiced strong recommendations that connectivity for transit-dependent service workers and residents be accommodated as part of the city’s rebuilding process. Strong preference was expressed for inclusion of the French Quarter loop extended to Press Street, terminating just short of the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, as an important first-phase streetcar line.

The emergence of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grant program, with its short turnaround time for grant applicants, provided yet another challenge to the already compressed project schedule.

In considering the results of the technical analyses and community feedback, the project team recommended that, instead of dropping any of the surviving alignments from further development, the following three-component program of streetcar projects be adopted as the locally preferred alternative (LPA):

  • UPT/Loyola Avenue Streetcar Loop;
  • French Quarter Streetcar Loop; and
  • Convention Center/Riverfront Streetcar Loop.

This recommendation was supported by results of economic development, forecast ridership and mobility studies. The French Quarter loop scored behind the other two corridors on potential future residential development, based on a smaller supply of available land and significantly lower planned/zoned densities. However, the project team realized that while the UPT/Loyola and Convention Center loops would bolster growth of redeveloping neighborhoods, the French Quarter alignment creates an opportunity to stabilize historically notable neighborhoods and substantial existing residential populations.

Much of the housing within a quarter-mile of the French Quarter alignment is at workforce levels of affordability and, as such, the area provides a substantial supply of the study area’s workforce housing. Connecting this supply to the streetcar system would provide access for this workforce population to the significant employment options available in the French Quarter and the CBD.

Three Corridors, One Vision

The three corridors under study provide excellent opportunities to expand and/or reinforce true urban neighborhoods and business centers, with a sustainable urban development and redevelopment focus. A more successful downtown core will bring a greater tax base and more resources to the broader city, benefitting all residents on some level.

From a ridership forecast perspective, all three corridors show potential to attract ridership and contribute to a viable local area circulation system that provides improved connectivity for the CBD and French Quarter. The ridership forecast results indicate there is an advantage to implementing all three corridors, since it is likely that total ridership benefits under a fully built-out streetcar system would be greater than incremental construction of each streetcar alignment. While the viability of any or all of the proposed extensions will ultimately depend on other factors such as cost, construction impacts, available funding and implementation/phasing, the forecasts appear to favor moving forward with the extensions.

Each of the three alignments — the UPT/Loyola, the Convention Center and the French Quarter — provides benefits to its particular transit-dependent community and better access to job opportunities. Extending the Canal Streetcar line to the UPT and the Convention Center will improve transportation in and out of a multitude of hospitality industry job bases. Likewise, the French Quarter/Press Street alignment will improve mobility for residents in adjacent and nearby neighborhoods to employment opportunities in the CBD.

Moving Forward

The New Orleans RTA board accepted the recommended three-component program as the LPA on June 25, 2009. On August 6, the New Orleans City Council unanimously supported the RTA board’s resolution, and on August 11, the board of the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission passed a resolution to support steps to adopt the LPA into the fiscally constrained Long Range Transportation Plan. On Oct. 23, 2009, the RTA contracted HDR to complete Environmental Assessment and Preliminary Engineering (EA/PE) work within the next nine months.

Now, the New Orleans RTA is aggressively pursuing continued project development activities, with the goal of going from concept to completed construction within three-and-a-half years, with a proposed opening date of February 2012. HDR’s transit team continues to support the RTA in this intensive effort, working with the client to heighten the compelling magic of one of the United States’ richest cultural heritage resources.