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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
Chief Executive Officer, Regional Transit Authority in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS – 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. Presently, the RTA operates three rail lines; the historic St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line, the bustling Canal St. Streetcar line, and the majestic Riverfront Streetcar line. These rail lines service 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 referenced in New Orleans, has been a staple of the transit network in the city for generations. The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line is the oldest continuously running street railway system in the world and has operated continuously for over 175 years. All other New Orleans light rail lines were replaced by bus service in the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s; preservationists worked with the transit agency and the city government to protect the St. Charles Avenue Line and secured historic landmark status for this iconic line. The protection of this historic line provided the base for the RTA to launch a return to rail well ahead of other American cities.

Predicting the national return to light rail, the RTA successfully developed and built the Riverfront Streetcar line in 1988. This scenic line is nestled between the French Quarter and the banks of the Mississippi River and provides transportation from the Convention Center to the French Market. The connectivity it provides between visitors and conventioneers to the small, locally owned boutiques, restaurants, and novelty shops drive business in that important tourist corridor.

The Canal Streetcar line was removed and replaced with bus service in the 1960’s. Forty years later, in 2004, the Regional Transit Authority in New Orleans had the vision and foresight to return the rail line to service to give better access to the Central Business District. This project, funded by $130 million in federal grants and $32 million in RTA funds, spurred a resurgence and renaissance in the residential neighborhoods along the Canal Streetcar line. Tragically, these newly built and returned rail cars were severely damaged and flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Recognizing the importance of this rail line to the 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 the return in 2006, the business and residential area surrounding the Canal streetcar line has benefitted from an economic boost with small and boutique businesses and restaurants thriving and a $38 million dollar shopping center set to open along the corridor that is projected to generate more than $60 million in annual retail sales and hundreds of permanent jobs. It has also become a neighborhood of choice for families and individuals in the city.

In February 2010, the Board of Commissioners of the RTA along with the management team of it's private operating partner, Veolia Transportation, successfully secured a Transit Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant in the amount of $45 million to fund an exciting new rail project. The agency broke ground on the Loyola Avenue/Union Passenger Terminal streetcar expansion project in June of 2010. This project will improve access to the city’s transit network from the Central Business District and reduce travel time between residential areas, employment centers, and major activity centers. It will also promote and support economic development in the area by allowing improved connectivity between convention, tourism, entertainment, energy, health care and biosciences facilities and enhance livability for Downtown residents.

The benefits of this streetcar line have not been lost on investors. Mega-developments along the new streetcar corridor include the $243 million renovation of the recently reopened Hyatt Regency Hotel, and the 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 over $2 billion in private investment to date. This rail line will additionally create a new interconnectivity between New Orleans’ local transit network and regional and national transit networks. With a completion date scheduled for mid-January 2013, it will play a major role in the city of New Orleans successfully hosting the 2013 Super Bowl due to its proximity to the local football arena and festivities surrounding this event.

Currently, the agency has entered the final design phase of its next rail project. The RTA, 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 St. to Elysian Fields Ave. will provide a significant population of workforce, and transit-dependent residents with direct access to employment opportunities in the Central Business District of New Orleans. This new rail line is projected to break ground in 2014 and has already encouraged investment in the area it will travel through with major projects underway 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. To learn more about the rail projects underway in New Orleans visit www.norta.com.

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