New streetcar line cited; residents upset
by Allen Powell II
New Orleans bureau
October 12, 2012
New Orleans — As the Regional Transit Authority pushes to complete its new Loyola Avenue streetcar line by next year, the agency is proposing changes to existing bus service that residents at a recent public hearing found unacceptable.
The $52 million streetcar project, which was paid for with a combination of federal and local money, is projected to be completed in January.
Once it is complete, transit officials are considering combining several existing bus lines, changing the routes of others and making a temporary transfer station at Canal Street and Marais Street permanent.
Overall, the changes would result in a 5 percent increase in service, but certain routes would see cuts, according to the plan.
Stefan Marks, the director of planning for RTA, told residents Wednesday that the agency believes the changes, which include lengthening the route of the Galvez bus into the Lower Ninth Ward and increasing service on the Canal Street streetcar line, should allow the agency to provide higher quality service to more residents.
“We know that there are service needs all over the community, and we’re trying to meet those needs,” Marks said.
The changes could affect about 20 routes in areas including eastern New Orleans, Algiers and Central City.
The RTA is reviewing several possible plans, and the agency’s board of commissioners will make a decision Nov. 13. Residents can view the complete plans and make comments at the agency’s website www.norta.com.
Wednesday’s meeting was the final public hearing on the plan, and residents not only took the time to air their grievances about the changes but also complain about RTA’s service in general.
Residents complained that their commutes are already lengthy and difficult and said reducing service would only make things worse. Commuters from eastern New Orleans and Algiers were particularly adamant about the need to increase the number of buses serving those areas.
In addition, residents found the site at Canal and Marais streets unacceptable for a permanent transfer station.
“That is definitely a no,” said Sandy Harmon, who commutes from near City Park to downtown. “I can’t see that … That’s really kind of a bad idea.”
Rhonda Soublet, a teacher and frequent rider, echoed those concerns, saying the new site feels dangerous both from a crime and traffic perspective.
“I’m just going to say it – I don’t want to catch the bus in the back of a project,” she said.
Rachel Heiligman, the executive director of local transit advocacy group RIDE, said the Marais Street transfer station is too far from downtown and other bus lines. The site lacks necessary amenities and has unsafe crossings, inadequate lighting, insufficient seating and nonexistent restrooms, she said.
“They’re now practically being pushed to the edge of the CBD,” Heiligman said.
Marks said the RTA likes the Marais Street site because, unlike the previous transfer site near Elk Street, the new location provides an easier opportunity for expansion; it features more pedestrian space, and it is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The RTA said that roughly 5,000 to 7,000 riders use the Marais Street transfer station daily, and about 25 to 35 bus movements happen there per hour. The site accommodates roughly 10 percent of the daily riders on city buses and streetcars. Marks admitted that site isn’t perfect, but said it’s not all bad either.
“It’s not a perfect location, I wish it was a perfect location,” Marks said. “The challenge for us is to find an optimal location.”
One of the other changes proposed is that some routes that currently end at Canal Street will now end at the Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola. From there, residents will need to catch the new streetcar to get into downtown. That change would affect the Freret route along with the newly combined Napoleon and Martin Luther King routes.
Derrick Breun, the chief operating officer for RTA, said the change would reduce the need for buses to fight through afternoon congestion and should improve commutes. But residents complained that adding another transfer makes it more likely they will miss connections.
Part of the problem is that the RTA’s service has not kept pace with the population growth of the city. Although estimates put the city’s population at about 70 to 80 percent of its pre-Katrina levels, Breun said RTA service is only at about 40 percent of where it was prior to the storm. The agency has to make decisions based on available resources.
“Everything costs money,” said Breun, who noted that creating one, five-day line can cost about $350,000.