Planned Rampart-St. Claude streetcar draws support, criticism

As the Regional Transit Authority prepares to wrap up the design phase of a planned streetcar line on North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue, there’s debate about whether the track should be in its own dedicated lane.

There also are concerns about the number of bicycle lanes on the road, vibrations along the route and what will happen to existing bus lines once the streetcars roll.

The RTA projects the line, which will begin at Canal Street and end at Elysian Fields Avenue, to cost $75 million, which will be paid for with bonds.

About 60 percent of the design work is done. Work is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2014 and be completed by the third quarter of 2015, according to Brendan Matthews, chief maintenance officer for Veolia Transdev, which operates the RTA.

In addition to the streetcar line, a bicycle lane will be added to the Uptown-bound side of Rampart Street, and shelters will be built along the line’s six stops.

Speaking to a standing-room only crowd that gathered at the Hyatt French Quarter Hotel on Wednesday night to hear details about the plan, Bill Norquist, an engineer with AECOM Transportation, which the RTA has hired to manage the project, said that while the plan has begun to come together, specifics are still being figured out.

“All of the details are starting to gel at this point,” he said. “Nothing been finalized.”

One aspect that is certain, however, is that the streetcar will travel in the road.

The neutral ground cannot handle the tracks, according to Matthews, since there are utilities underneath it, including a major AT&T trunk line.

Because the streetcar will take up one of the two lanes on Rampart and St. Claude, some have advocated for giving that lane entirely to the streetcar.

Rachel Heiligman, executive director of Ride New Orleans, a nonprofit, said that to make the line efficient, it needs to have a dedicated lane, signal prioritization and that some intersections should be closed to traffic.

“This should be a policy decision,” she said. “This should be a discussion with the community.”

Right now plans call for the streetcar sharing a lane with traffic except during peak times, such as the morning and afternoon rush. During those times, the lane in which the street car rolls would be off limits to traffic.

And though some argued that reducing the travel lanes to one during rush hours proves that there can always be one lane of traffic, City Hall spokesman Ryan Berni said traffic studies have found that a permanent reduction to one lane would result in “negative impacts to traffic flow” in the Central Business District and French Quarter.

Justin Augustine, the RTA’s CEO, said a dedicated lane would be ideal, but the agency has reached a compromise with the city, which controls the streets, in regard to the shared lane. Anyone who wants that changed, he said, should contact City Hall.

Asked what effect the new streetcar line might have on existing bus routes, Augustine said that those details are being examined.

Since the streetcar will pass by the Saenger Theater, a small number of historic cemeteries and past some residences, a number of people in the audience during Wednesday’s meeting asked about noise and vibrations.

Norquist said that the line will be built in a more solid state, with the track inside of a rubber jacket that is embedded in concrete.

That, he said, is done to reduce vibrations. The construction of the cars’ wheels, he added, will reduce the noise levels often associated with them.

One bicycle lane will be added to the Uptown-bound side of St. Claude and Rampart.

And though some in the audience asked for a similar lane on the other side, RTA officials said there is not enough space to add one on that side.

While there appeared to be general support for the project, French Quarter resident Leo Watermeier said he was against the idea.

He said he fears that construction will drag on, killing businesses along the route and disrupting residents’ quality of life.

“I’m against the whole project,” he said.

Local developer Pres Kabacoff, however, said that the end result could be beneficial for the corridor.

Streetcars, he said, have been proven to drive economic development.

Additionally, he added, an efficient line could draw more people to the neighborhoods it will serve.

“We can’t have progress without some inconvenience,” Augustine said.