New streetcar line drawing riders

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ ---  The Loyola street car stops along its line to let passengers off at Julia Street near its teminus at  the Union Passenger Station on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Another street car is seen close behind.
Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ --- The Loyola street car stops along its line to let passengers off at Julia Street near its teminus at the Union Passenger Station on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Another street car is seen close behind.

Supporters of ‘line to nowhere’ hope it encourages development

It was a streetcar line some described as a line to nowhere.

But the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority’s director of planning and scheduling on Thursday said that the new Loyola Avenue line, in operation for a little more than a month, already has seen a healthy ridership. That interest is something he predicts will grow with the addition of a new spur down North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue.

The route, which travels a sleepy stretch of Loyola between the Union Passenger Terminal and Canal Street, opened Jan. 28. Between its ribbon cutting and March 10, the line’s ridership has totaled 52,878, according to figures provided by the RTA.

There were 35,030 riders in February, with a daily average of about 1,400. The monthly figure likely was buoyed by Carnival and the Super Bowl, said Stefan Marks, director of planning and scheduling for Veolia Transportation, which operates the RTA.

March saw 13,423 riders as of the 10th, according to the RTA figures. About 1,200 riders used the streetcar each day during that time frame.

“So far, I’m encouraged. Certainly it will take some time to build (ridership),” Marks said, adding that the numbers so far are “sort of what we were expecting.”

The $53 million project was partially funded by a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant. According to the RTA’s September 2009 application for the grant, the agency estimated daily ridership to be 2,410 by the end of its first year in service.

Marks said it will take time to grow the ridership.

The line is still in its infancy, he pointed out, and will take time to develop a following.

That could happen, he said, once Loyola Avenue begins to see new construction when a planned mixed-use development springs up and after the RTA links the Loyola line to a planned line on North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue that will end at Elysian Fields Avenue. That project is still in the design phase right now.

“We’re talking about a longterm community investment,” Marks said.

Meanwhile, some transportation observers say the line’s riders could mostly be coming from the Freret and Martin Luther King bus lines that now end at the UPT, forcing riders onto the streetcar.

“Riders, I don’t believe, are too happy with that position,” said Rachel Heiligman, executive director of the nonprofit Ride New Orleans, said.

She agreed with Marks that the addition of the Rampart-St. Claude line is what will make the Loyola line useful. Beyond the bus and train station, two hotels and a small number of office buildings on the eight-block stretch of Loyola that the streetcar travels, there is little along the avenue for residents or tourists.

“At this moment the points it links are few and far between,” Heiligman said.

Part of the grant application involved the RTA explaining how the line could spur economic development along the line.

While many of the projects the RTA cited in its 2009 grant application were already on the drawing board before the Loyola line was even approved, Marks and other RTA officials have previously said they expect the streetcar to continue to produce interest in the avenue.

“I think it’s going to do what it’s supposed to do,” Marks said.