A Streetcar Named Denied

Charles Maldonado on why there's been so little movement to make the city's busiest transit line wheelchair-accessible



"The original line dates back to 1835, and due to its status as National Register of Historic Places, by federal law the current 'Perley Thomas' streetcars in use must be preserved in time as they existed in 1923. In so many ways, a ride on the St. Charles streetcar is a ride through history."

— New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) website, "Our Streetcars"

An implied addendum to the above: Except the addition of LED lights, ads for the state lottery and the new electronic fareboxes with magnetic swipe readers. Other than that, all 35 of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's (NORTA) St. Charles Avenue Streetcars — the green Perley Thomas cars — are precisely as they were in 1923.

  NORTA, its private operator, France-based Veolia Transportation, and the City of New Orleans clearly have a commitment to nearly total historic authenticity on the St. Charles line. Unlike many American cities, New Orleans is known for honoring and preserving its history (for the most part anyway), and that commitment is a boon for the city's national image.

  The St. Charles line — the 35 Perley 900-series cars and the 13 miles of rail they travel on from Canal and Carondelet streets in the Central Business District to Uptown's Palmer Park — is one of only a few active transit lines that's also on the National Parks Service's National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), a list of more than 80,000 historically significant properties throughout the country.

  It's the oldest continuously operated street railway line in the world, a fact NORTA, historic preservationists and city boosters like to point out. The line was added to the NRHP in 1973, just seven years after Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) which created the registry, and 31 years before the New York City subway system was added.

  "I believe it is an invaluable asset for the city of New Orleans, for us, to have," says NORTA/Veolia spokeswoman Patrice Bell Mercadel.

  Not necessarily for all of us, though. Ask Jonah Bascle.

Bascle, a 25-year-old stand-up comedian who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, cannot board a streetcar on the historic line, which has remained pretty much the same since 1923, 67 years before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Unlike the newer red cars on both the Canal and Riverfront lines, as well as all 186 of NORTA's buses, the St. Charles line isn't ADA-accessible.

  Even as the city started construction last week on a mile-long streetcar service expansion along Loyola Avenue, paid for with a $45 million federal grant, and even as the New Orleans City Council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration have declared greater accessibility for disabled residents a top priority — a so-called "taxi bill of rights" now under council consideration was amended to include the removal of wheelchair fees in cabs — NORTA has made little progress in addressing ADA improvements on the heavily used St. Charles line.

  "It's just a frustration for me," Bascle says. "I've lived here my whole life, not being able to get around."

A Perley Thomas Streetcar rolls past Jonah Bascle, who can't ride the St. Charles line because it can't accommodate his wheelchair. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • A Perley Thomas Streetcar rolls past Jonah Bascle, who can't ride the St. Charles line because it can't accommodate his wheelchair.

  Precisely what about the vintage streetcar line makes it inaccessible should be obvious to anyone who's ever ridden it. The cars' aisles are barely wide enough to accommodate a single file of walkers, let alone a wheelchair; the cars have no wheelchair ramps; and there are no straps to secure a wheelchair while the streetcars are moving. To compound problems, large portions of the route run along netural grounds not equipped with ramped curb cuts or cement platforms.

  Last year, Bascle ran for mayor on a single-issue platform: making the line accessible under ADA guidelines. It wasn't an earnest run but, he says, it "seemed like a good way to get some attention for this problem." (Bascle came in eighth place with 160 votes.) For a moment, at least, it looked like it worked. Landrieu the candidate seemed to take the issue seriously. So did Landrieu the mayor-elect, when he put Bascle on the customer service task force of his transition team.

  And that was about where it ended, Bascle says.

  "Pretty much as soon as that was over and no one had to talk about it, they were like, OK, it's over,'" he says. "And it's not fixed at all."

  "Mayor Landrieu is committed to improving accessibility throughout our city," Landrieu's press secretary Ryan Berni said in an emailed statement "The RTA has rightly formed a committee to look into improving accessibility on the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar line. RTA already provides ADA paratransit services along the line, and the rest of the entire RTA fleet is ADA compliant. At the City, we are currently working on an effort to ensure there is a fleet of disabled-friendly taxicabs ready to be dispatched for our residents and visitors. We take ADA compliance very seriously."

The impediment to ADA accessibility improvements on the St. Charles route is the streetcar's designation on the National Register. That's the short explanation, at least, and it's the one that, as of this writing, NORTA continues to present to the public on its website:

  "The green streetcars that travel the St. Charles Avenue line do not contain accessibility equipment. The green St. Charles Avenue streetcars are considered a National Historic Landmark. This federal status protects our treasured, historic streetcar line, but it also means that by law the RTA cannot update the streetcars with the modern equipment needed to make them accessible to disabled riders. The red streetcars that travel on Canal Street and on the Riverfront line are accessible to disabled riders."

  There are at least two things wrong with that statement, says Jim Gabbert, historian and southeastern regional reviewer for the NRHP. The first is that the streetcar line is not a National Historic Landmark (NHL), which applies to only 2,500 properties out of 80,000 in the NRHP. The NHL is a much shorter, more exclusive list (and one that includes another active line-and-vehicle transit combination: San Francisco's cable cars).

  The other, Gabbert says, is that NORTA can indeed update its streetcars with modern equipment while maintaining its place on the NRHP.

  "Under the NHPA, federal agencies must take into account the effects of their actions on historic properties. It does not prevent federal properties from being altered," Gabbert says. "Any of these state preservation offices, including Louisiana, should be able to cite instances where historic properties have been altered to accommodate ADA requirements. So there are ways to do it." (The elevator-equipped Cabildo, home of the Lousiana State Museum, is one such instance, even though as a National Historic Landmark it's held to an even higher standard for maintaining historic authenticity than a property that's merely on the register, like the streetcars.)

The red street cars that run on Canal Street and the Riverfront comply with ADA access laws including automatic streetcar ramps. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • The red street cars that run on Canal Street and the Riverfront comply with ADA access laws including automatic streetcar ramps.

  NORTA — like most other publicly accessed facilities, including privately owned ones like restaurants and office buildings — simply isn't required to make the ADA improvements.

  "Due to the fact that the line has this historic nature and due to its being designated as the longest continuously operating, unchanged rail line in all of the world, the RTA has a waiver for the line specifically as well as the cars themselves," Mercadel says. Mercadel admits that while NORTA isn't strictly prohibited from making the necessary adjustments, the agency fears the line might have to be altered so drastically that it would lose its designation.

  "I know that we have done some research," Mercadel says. "We have found many challenges. One of them would be that — let's just say we could employ a handicap ramp on the vehicles ... I know that we've done enough research to show that if we were to have a ramp of that size, scale and the acceptable safety compliance issues that exist for the federal regulations and for the right of way, we do not have the space in our right of way on that rail line to deploy that kind of ramp. If we were to deploy one of those ramps, the ramp would be deploying into the street."

  Bascle doesn't buy it. He believes all it would take is adding some of the newer ramp-equipped red cars to the line, putting in platforms and possibly widening some of the medians on St. Charles. "It would mostly be just cement and a curb cutout," he says.

According to Jacques Berry, spokesman for Lt. Gov. and Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism Commissioner Jay Dardenne, whose office oversees the Division of Historic Preservation, the city of New Orleans and NORTA can do whatever they want with the property and maintain its historic status — so long as they're not trying to get federal funding for it.

  But with potential improvements along the 13-mile long track stretching most of the way across the city, plus a possible need for new red streetcars to supplement the active green ones, such a project would likely be prohibitively expensive and would require the city and NORTA to seek funds from the Federal Transit Administration, Mercadel and Berry say.

  Getting that process started while maintaining historic designation would require a state review (historic and engineering assessments along with a series of public hearings), then federal approval from NRHP. NORTA hasn't taken the first step in that process.

  "We haven't been contacted by the RTA," Berry says.

  NORTA officials say they have formed a committee to determine whether the agency will make a formal inquiry, according to an emailed statement from Mercadel:

The city maintains there isn't room to unfold motorized wheelchair ramps on the St. Charles neutral ground. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • The city maintains there isn't room to unfold motorized wheelchair ramps on the St. Charles neutral ground.

  "The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar Line and the Perley Thomas Streetcars that service that line are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Prior to any modifications being made to the line or the streetcars, the Regional Transit Authority must seek authorization from governing bodies. The Regional Transit Authority has formed a committee to research the feasibility of moving toward accessibility on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line. Members of the committee have discussed critical considerations including legality, operational capacity, safety concerns, and financial implications. All of these considerations are being explored fully prior to any formal action being taken. The RTA is committed to serving all members of the community and offers ADA paratransit services to qualifying riders. Additionally, all other RTA vehicles, with the exception of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, are fully accessible."

NORTA's Board of Commissioners does have a committee with the specific mission of addressing disabled-rider issues. The 10-member paratransit advisory committee — its formal name is the Special Transit Services Committee — is overseen by NORTA ADA coordinator Karen Wilson-Sider. The paratransit advisory committee meets on the first Thursday of every other month. Its next meeting is 10 a.m. Oct. 6 in the boardroom of the RTA Building (2817 Canal St.).

  The committee's four main objectives, according to the NORTA website, are to "Provide a forum for the concerns of disabled riders in the RTA's service areas; Review current RTA policies, services, and procedures that affect the disabled community; Prepare comments and written recommendations for the RTA board about issues affecting disabled riders; Assist the RTA Board when it plans services for disabled riders; Provide technical assistance and advice about serving disabled ridership."

  But Mercadel says the paratransit advisory committee is not the as-yet-unidentified one in charge of studying ADA compliance on the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar. Asked for the title of the appropriate committee, the names of any of its members, when it has met or whether any of its meetings have been publicly advertised, Mercadel emailed a statement to Gambit:

  "The statement provided constitutes the present position of the RTA as we move forward with exploring the feasibility of St. Charles Avenue Line accessibility."

Assuming the worst case — a hypothetical in which NORTA or the city started the formal process and the NPS decided any federally funded ADA improvements would result in a loss of historic status — it wouldn't cost NORTA or the city anything, at least not anything financial. Being on the Register of Historic Places is good for tax benefits if the property is privately owned, which it's not. The designation can be used to secure grants, but only if the money is going to be used for maintaining historic authenticity, not for improving service.

  As Bascle points out, the St. Charles line is not just an invaluable historic asset but a widely used public service. According to RTA ridership records, the St. Charles line provided 3.1 million rides in 2010. That accounts for 22 percent of total 2010 RTA ridership (13.8 million) and 53 percent of NORTA streetcar ridership (5.9 million).

  "The problem to me is that's the main line to get to a lot of places in New Orleans," Bascle says. "To not have (disabled) access to a line that's ridden by the most people doesn't seem right to me."

Bascle ran for mayor last year on a platform of making all Streetcars accessible for riders in wheelchairs. He placed eight in the race with 160 votes. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Bascle ran for mayor last year on a platform of making all Streetcars accessible for riders in wheelchairs. He placed eight in the race with 160 votes.

There is no bus service on St. Charles Avenue. NORTA's suggested alternate bus lines are on Freret and Magazine streets — nine and seven blocks away for most of their routes — and the Leonidas line, which goes roughly in the same direction and takes a rider near the Uptown end of the St. Charles line but has little in common with it beyond that.

  Compare this to the San Francisco cable car system, which, like the St. Charles streetcar line, also fails to live up to ADA standards. That it's a service intended mainly for visitors is clear just from its fare: $6 for children and adults, no transfers available. Then there's the fact that almost all of the area covered by the cable cars is redundant to San Francisco's regular bus and light rail services, which cost $2 for a single ride and are accessible.

  For Bascle, a comic who performs late at night in venues around the city, there's yet another problem: time. The St. Charles line, only about a half-mile from his house, runs throughout the night, unlike any nearby bus line.

  "I was downtown last week [at the Howlin' Wolf]. I was able to get the bus to that area earlier in the day, but I had to rush out of there to get home [on the Magazine bus line]," he says. "I think the latest one is still only 11:30 (p.m.)."

  Bascle's Uptown house, where he lives with his parents and his brother Jesse, who also uses a wheelchair, is actually closer to the Freret Street bus line than the St. Charles streetcar. But the Freret bus stops running before 11 p.m. The next closest alternative, Magazine, stops at midnight inbound toward Canal Street and 11:39 p.m. outbound. Leonidas only goes until 7 p.m. and doesn't run at all during the weekends.

  Bascle says getting a ride to places he needs to go can be difficult. His brother's van has a wheelchair ramp but no hand controls for brakes and gas, so that requires a driver. So does getting a ride in a friend's car. In both cases, Bascle is put in the uncomfortable position of depending on someone else to get home from his job — although the city has a municipal transit system.

  Mercadel defends NORTA's overall commitment to providing service for disabled New Orleanians and says the agency complies with ADA rules on every other NORTA project, which accounted for 78 percent of last year's total ridership. She says the percentage of rides taken in accessible vehicles could go even higher with the addition of new ADA-compliant streetcar service under construction.

  "We do have all of our other services compliant and fully accessible, whether you have a steel wheel that rolls on rails or whether you have a rubber wheel that runs on the streets in our city, everything else is fully accessible," Mercadel says. "We are committed to moving forward to make certain that any of the new lines coming on are going to be compliant — the Loyola Avenue spur and the French Quarter spur. We find ourselves in a conundrum of having this amazing historic asset and trying to make certain that everything we do going forward ... addresses the needs of all the residents of this community."

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