There is no doubt New Orleanians like their streetcars. Whether they’re the vintage models rumbling along St. Charles Avenue or the modern vehicles plying the Canal Street and riverfront routes, streetcars are celebrated as symbols of the Crescent City and serve as rolling tourist attractions and public transit all at the same time.
Now, though, streetcar enthusiasts have to hope federal officials think as much about this mode of transport as they do. That’s because proposals to significantly expand the streetcar network in New Orleans are in the running with projects around the country vying for a share of a massive federal transportation funding initiative.
Local planners want to build new streetcar lines along the North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue corridor connecting the French Quarter with the Tremé and Marigny; on Loyola Avenue connecting the Union Passenger Terminal with Canal Street; and along Convention Center Boulevard. They’re all aimed at giving local commuters and visitors new ways to get around the city.
For funding, city officials have turned to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery – or TIGER – grant program, which is a component of the federal stimulus package. About $1.5 billion is available in TIGER funds, though the Department of Transportation (DOT) has received some 1,400 project applications for TIGER, totaling more than $57 billion. That means competition among projects will be fierce.
But local streetcar boosters can glean hope from a visit U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made to New Orleans late in 2009 to inspect recovery efforts from the Katrina levee failures. He used the visit to announce that another $280 million would be made available nationally for what the DOT calls “urban circulator projects,” which specifically include streetcars and buses.
“This is an enormous amount of money and we can do a lot of good with this money,” LaHood said during his visit. “We can really initiate some wonderful opportunities for communities that want to get back into the streetcar business or continue in the streetcar business.”
The government says funding priority will be given to projects that connect destinations and “foster the redevelopment of communities into walkable, mixed use, high-density environments.”
The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority is seeking $121 million through TIGER, which would cover about 57 percent of costs to build these new lines. Most of the balance, or $73.5 million, would be funded by the sale of bonds.
The Obama administration plans to announce TIGER distribution decisions for the money soon.