Last week, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) introduced preliminary plans for a streetcar to link Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue along Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue. Among the plans was the reveal that the car would not occupy space on the neutral ground nor its own dedicated transit lane. Instead, the streetcar will share the left lane with traffic — except during peak traffic hours, when it will be exclusively reserved for the streetcar. Many attendees at the meeting asked if it would run in its own lane when traffic is at its worst, then why not all the time?
New Orleans District C councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer and neighborhood groups had the same question at this afternoon's council transportation committee meeting. Palmer and District C councilman James Gray also challenged the RTA to include more than one bike lane — the current plan has only one bike lane, headed into the CBD.
"To me, that doesn't make any sense," said Carol Allen, president of the Vieux Carre Property Owners Association, adding that there likely is federal funding available for bike infrastructure. Palmer agreed.
Sue Klein with the North Rampart Main Street and French Quarter Citizens said a dedicated transit lane would slow down traffic, thus making transit (and neighborhoods) safer. "I don't care if one lane of traffic is lost," Klein added. "It should not be a state highway. ... Let's keep it to one lane of traffic."
Rachel Heiligman with transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans pointed to flaws in the traffic study used to influence engineering designs for the project, and reminded RTA general manager Justin Augustine that he would prefer a dedicated lane, but asked why the city "hangs its hat" on a "flawed" study.
Palmer also reminded the RTA that City Council passed a Complete Streets ordinance, which enforces comprehensive (to pedestrians, mass transit, bicycles, etc.) transit corridors for all new or updated road projects. "That's not policy anymore," she said. "That's law."
Palmer asked Augustine for a written answer from the project staff why the exceptions were made for the project.
Last year, as planning was underway, Ride New Orleans gathered letters of support sent to RTA for a dedicated lane. A letter signed by all members of City Council added that under the city’s master plan (which carries the force of law), transit projects should evolve to include “dedicated lanes away from automobile traffic.” Bywater Neighborhood Association, North Rampart and St. Claude Main Street organizations, the University of New Orleans, and French Quarter Citizens sent similar letters.
At the March 6 meeting, Augustine noted that he fully supports a dedicated lane, but the RTA compromised with the city — Mayor Mitch Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni pointed to traffic studies that would make a “negative” impact on traffic if a lane were removed. Augustine said supporters of a dedicated lane should contact City Hall.