New Orleans councilmembers, residents continue push for dedicated streetcar lanes

Additional bicycle lane also urged

As the New Orleans Regional Planning Authority continues plans for a streetcar line on North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue, the City Council and residents are continuing their push to have one lane of those roadways dedicated to the new line.

In addition, District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who also serves as chairwoman of the Transportation Committee, on Friday told RTA officials that she would like to see a bicycle lane put on both sides of the thoroughfare, rather than only the Uptown-bound side, which plans call for.

Design work on the line that will run between Canal Street and Elysian Fields Avenue is about 60 percent done, RTA officials have said. The agency expects work to begin in early 2014 and wrap toward the middle of 2015. The RTA expects the line will cost $75 million, which will be paid for with bonds.

The fact that the operating plans call for allowing cars to use both lanes of the road rather than giving one lane solely to the streetcar isn’t sitting well with Palmer or transportation advocates.

Justin Augustine, the RTA’s CEO, said during a meeting last week that 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 during that meeting, should contact City Hall.

That compromise calls for cutting off vehicular access to the streetcar lane during peak hours in the morning and afternoon. But, some argue, if the roadway can handle one lane of traffic during rush hours, it can handle one lane of traffic during all hours.

During Friday’s meeting of the council’s transportation committee, Augustine said his agency will listen to community input on the matter.

Ultimately, though, the city has the final say on how its roads are used.

Rachel Heiligman, executive director of Ride New Orleans, a transportation nonprofit, said the study used to reach the compromise had several “deficiencies” and that its results are inaccurate.

“The traffic study submitted to the city looked so terrible they had to say no” to closing off one lane to vehicles, Heiligman said.

Palmer added that the city’s master plan actually requires that new streetcar lines be given a dedicated lane. That point was also made in a letter she wrote last June to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, which all of her council colleagues signed.

The city does not appear willing to budge on the matter of giving up a lane of traffic to the streetcar.

The response to Palmer’s comments that Landrieu’s press office issued Friday evening did not address concerns about problems with the study or the force of law of the master plan.

“Traffic studies suggest there would be significant negative impacts to traffic flow in the Central Business District and French Quarter associated with reconfiguring this heavily used street with one travel lane and a dedicated streetcar lane as opposed to two traffic lanes,” City Hall spokesman C. Hayne Rainey wrote in a prepared statement, a similar statement to that issued by the city in response to those same concerns during last week’s meeting.

Beyond the streetcar, the RTA’s plans for Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue call for adding a bicycle lane on the Uptown-bound lanes.

While neighbors and council members said they’d like to see a bicycle lane on the downtown-bound side as well, Augustine said there does not appear to be enough room to add that.

Pressed by Palmer about whether giving the streetcar its own lane could result in more space for a bicycle lane, Augustine said he would need to look into that.

“I want a very specific response from the RTA,” Palmer said, adding that under the city’s complete streets program, bicycle lanes are required.

“That’s not policy anymore,” Palmer said. “That’s the law.”