Sunday, June 21, 2009

Only tourists deserve transit?

And only the least adventurous ones at that.

--

An official WCBF tip of the hat to Transport for Nola for keeping an eye on the RTA.

To briefly synthesize what's going on, and please correct any inaccuracies:

The city actually has a little bit of money for a new streetcar line. Perhaps more to the point, there is a lot of federal money available for public transportation via the stimulus bill. To tap those funds, we need to present a compelling project. More consequentially, we need a project that will serve real neighborhoods and real New Orleanians while also opening up some economic opportunities to under-performing areas.

The RTA, or rather, the private firm Veolia to whom the RTA has contracted away all of its responsibilities, recently pitched three separate proposals.

One would be a new streetcar line starting at Canal and Rampart that would run on Rampart and then all the way down St. Claude Avenue to Poland Ave. One variation would be to instead run the line down Elysian Fields to the riverfront instead of taking it all the way down St. Claude.

One would be a new line connecting the Union Passenger Terminal to Canal St. via Loyola Avenue.

The last would be a new line connecting the Convention Center to Canal St.

There's an opportunity for outrage here and it's obvious. Guess which plan has been dubbed 'preferred?'

Of course it's the one that only tourists will use - the one on Convention Center Boulevard.

There are a few really dumb reasons this plan has traction over the other more utilitarian options.

First, Veolia believes that the Convention Center route would have the greatest short-term ridership, thereby increasing revenue. However, this is an insulting rationale since the other options would surely contribute to more robust use of public transportation by the residential public over the long term as well as boost public support for future capital investments in transit.

The second rationale for the Convention Center Boulevard route is that the Convention Center folks have a little bit of extra money that they would throw into the project. This is insulting since that money is just sitting there from the Convention Center's failed phase four expansion. They should probably just return it to the taxpayers.

OR...

THEY COULD USE IT TO IMPROVE ACCESS TO THE STREETCAR THEY ALREADY HAVE!

That's right! The Convention Center already has a streetcar! The riverfront line sits behind the Convention Center and has low ridership because nobody knows it's there.

The guys at Transport for NOLA have a great compromise idea that would draw on the two other streetcar line proposals. I think it's the best proposal, the one most likely to get funded, and one that gives the city really strong options the next time money frees up for another expansion.

Their idea suggests running a streetcar line up Howard Avenue and down either Loyola or S. Rampart to Canal and then down Rampart to St. Claude and as far down St. Claude as money would allow, probably to Press St.

I think this line would develop really good ridership. After all, the St. Claude Avenue bus line has the highest ridership in the RTA.

I like this idea because it connects our streetcar lines into a discernible system. It connects uptown to downtown and offers incentive to build along the most depressed blocks of the CBD. Plus, it gives us a bunch of choices next time around whether we want to bring Elysian Fields Avenue into the mix or extend the St. Claude line all the way down to Poland.

View the Transport for NOLA resolution in pdf form here.

Sign on to it here.

The Transport guys have done a great job and really lay out a compelling case. It's not just that their proposal is the best for the city, but it is most likely to win federal funding. Read the resolution.

There is a really critical Thursday morning meeting about this as well:

WHEN: Thursday, June 25th, 10AM
WHERE:
RTA Headquarters
2817 Canal Street (one block lakeside of Broad Street)
New Orleans, LA 70119

Ladies and Gents, it's sexy to be a public transit wonk in the 21st Century.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the RTA, what's going on with Mr. Burgos and the former City Hall Annex?

What's the deal with that building's exemption from the same permit ban that Stacey Head and the entire Council slapped on their own residential and small business constituents in the same "preferred" hospital location since late 2007?

How much recovery or rebuilding assistance has been successfully obtained for the former City Hall Annex? Long before the November 2008 announcement about official site selection, residents in the same area were denied aid, forbidden to obtain permits, and were provided information about relocation even as the VA claimed, both in the press and at piblic meetings, that other location options were still being actively considered.

Why were key ordinances concerning land acquisition for the "preferred" proposed hopital site not published in the morning paper until May 2008?

Why was it not until June 2008 that that the VA held public site selection meetings?

E said...

These are all very good questions.

Clay said...

Couple of things to point out:

* The loop to the Convention Center would also include (as I've seen it) a return spur via Jackson Ave., which would serve the Irish Channel/Lower Garden District and help foster more tourists to Magazine Street.

* The Convention Center Blvd. has the quickest payback period of any expansion, hands down.

* I love streetcars, but they aren't as reliable as buses for locals, and that's coming from someone who has taken them to work for a while. There are too many stops, too many lights, and aren't allowed to travel anywhere near their top speed (they crushed too many cars back in the day). Streetcars, in their current form, are best served for the tourists.

Jeffrey said...

Thanks for the props, Eli!

Clay, I don't know what maps you've been looking at, but I believe you are wrong on all counts:

1. The Convention Center Loop extends the already existing Riverfront line to Henderson Street and then loops directly back along Convention Center Boulevard to Canal. It goes nowhere near Jackson.

2. The Convention Center Loop actually has the worst payback period because it has the worst ridership figures of any of the three alignments. It also is being submitted to the Small Starts program under the FTA, which only covers 50% of the capital costs of the line. There is no payback time on either of the other two alignments, if the RTA submits how it says it is, because the feds pay for all of the investment.

3. Buses are far more unreliable than streetcars in New Orleans. Your point is well-taken that streetcars are really poorly designed here, but that is precisely the point: if we designed them well, they'd work well.

E said...

Yeah Clay, Jeffrey's got his facts down on transit.

bayoustjohndavid said...

Jeffrey does not have his facts straight on point three. As much as I love the St. Charles Streetcar, buses are far more reliable. As far as I can tell, any kind of rail (streetcar, subway, el) is only preferable when it's separate from regular traffic. I've had a few apartments where I could either take a bus or streetcar downtown and always found myself taking the bus when time was a factor.

I will acknowledge that the RTA operated both buses and streetcars incompetently for at least a decade before Katrina -- under both the Morial cronies and the Nagin cronies. Way too slow to utilize the switchbacks when the streetcars got stacked up, buses that were behind schedule would stop for new passengers even if later buses were right on their tail.

I could see where streetcars might be preferable in the long run due to energy developments, but in the short term, if you want transit that serves people who need to get to and from work or school, buses work better.

Clay said...

Figure I'd add some linkage to the discussion...

Streetcars: Slightly less reliable than walking http://librarychronicles.blogspot.com/2004_04_01_archive.html#108247534026435114

Federal Grant Potentially Finances Streetcar Expansion: http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/06/federal_grant_potential_financ.html

Streetcar Expansion Study [PDF]:
http://blog.nola.com/graphics/2009/06/Streetcar-expansion-study.pdf

Overview of Electrified Rail as an energy strategy by local rail-guru Alan Drake: http://www.theoildrum.com/story/2006/10/15/174452/43

The PDF is what spawned this post. It's the latest "plan" for streetcar expansion. I've seen these "plans" (really more lines on a map) every 6 months or so for the last 10 years. Each time the routes are slightly different, but very few of them go beyond just lines on a map and a newspaper article or two. We'll see if something gets this built this time.

Also, one thing to throw out there: even if tourists are the main users of the streetcar expansion, that doesn't mean locals are traditionally left out. For example, the most profitable line for RTA has always been the St. Charles Line Streetcar (negligible operating costs except for once decade or two sleeper replacement and lots of full-fare tourists). The profits from the St. Charles Line subsidized the performance of a lot of totally unprofitable lines. At least before Katrina, RTA did a good job of a least geographically serving the entire area (even if it lacked in speed, efficiency, reliability and customer service).

E said...

My observation, and I'd love for Jeffrey to come back in on this, is that the reason the St. Charles streetcar is 'unreliable' is as a result of RTA route policy and not because streetcars are inherently less reliable than buses. The St. Charles line has a really long - I think headway is the term... Basically the route is really long because it makes too many stops. The streetcar shouldn't have pickup and drop off at literally every cross street. Imagine how much faster that thing would be if it just stopped at one out of three minor intersections plus all the major intersections...

jeffrey said...

I have to agree with David and Clay to some degree. Streetcars are terribly slow and unreliable in comparison to buses.

But they are nice and I would like to see more of them and I would definitely prefer seeing them designed as an actual component of the public transit system and not as an amusement ride for conventioneers.

jeffrey said...

Also. The St Charles line stops on every second block. I wouldn't want the stops to be too much further between.

Jeffrey said...

Sorry if I was overly-standoffish the first time around. :)

Eli and small-j jeffrey are correct that the headways (right term, E) for streetcars are so large in this city because we don't do simple things like prioritize lighting, create turn lanes, and put stops less frequently than every two blocks (four to six would be ideal).

That's not to say that investments and upgrades in buses aren't warranted; it's just that when properly designed, streetcars are far and away the most efficient way to move people around in our city on transit (FACT: in 1936, when NOLA had 436,000 people--about what it was just before Katrina--NOPSI handled over 110 million passenger trips on streetcars. It's not an apples to apples comparison because of the automobile, but there is no way--from a transportation design perspective--that buses could ever move than many people). I beg to differ that buses are more reliable in this city than are streetcars, but the point is well-taken that both can be substantially improved.

Clay is right that streetcars for tourists aren't a bad thing because they can be used by locals (and their box fares can be used to subsidize other transit). But I would turn that argument on its head: why not build a line that goes out into the Treme, Marigny, St. Roch, and Bywater that is primarily for residents, but which can also be used by tourists to see other destinations in the city that are off the beaten path. It's what every other city with transit (Boston, NY, etc.) does.

Also, Clay, the article you site from the TP is in reference to an actual proposal that is getting made to the FTA. I won't go into the specifics, but the RTA is not putting its best foot forward for winning federal (FTA) funding for the alignments.

I love that Oil Drum article idea. I wish our state would get on the high speed rail grants that came down through the ARRA, because New Orleans has a window of opportunity to be the hub in the country's high speed rail network (not Houston!).