After a quarter-century of planning, fundraising and debating, the wait is over.
Streetcars are finally set to begin rolling along North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue on Sunday, covering the 1.6 miles from Elysian Fields Avenue to Canal Street, then continuing across Canal along existing tracks to the Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola Avenue.
The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority will also begin a series of changes to surrounding transit routes Sunday to integrate the new streetcars into the system.
“I want to say thank you publicly for everyone that was so patient for us building this project over 18 months,” RTA General Manager Justin Augustine III said at an RTA board meeting this week.
The idea to restore the historic St. Claude streetcar line — which hasn’t run since the late 1940s — was first proposed under Mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s administration as part of a wider plan to return streetcars to Canal Street after what was then more than a 25-year absence.
Planners originally envisioned a line that would first end at Louis Armstrong Park and eventually be extended to Elysian Fields. Years later, they moved the eventual endpoint all the way to Poland Avenue, crossing Desire Street in an effort to capitalize on the fame the Desire streetcar line achieved from Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play.
That so-called Desire corridor project was scuttled after the federal government denied funding for it, in part because of limited local financing and the Norfolk Southern Railroad’s objection to streetcars crossing its Press Street rail lines.
Ultimately, the $41.5 million streetcar project was limited to running as far as Elysian Fields, and the RTA ended up funding it with proceeds from a 2010 bond sale.
Even that plan sparked a 2015 lawsuit from some nearby residents who said that building the streetcar line could damage historic buildings and cause street flooding. Also, the local advocacy group RIDE New Orleans claimed the new streetcars, although appealing to tourists, could lead to cutbacks in bus lines in the same area that the group said do a better job of serving local residents.
But a federal judge in March ruled against the residents who raised objections. And the revised routes that go into effect Sunday are an attempt to soothe concerns about depleted bus ridership.
Most bus routes that have run along North Rampart will continue to do so, although they now will make fewer stops between Elysian Fields and Canal.
The exception is the 57-Franklin Avenue line, which is taking an alternate route to Canal starting at Elysian Fields.
Separately, on the 15-Freret and the 28-Martin Luther King lines — two lines on the Uptown side of Canal Street whose routes were modified a few years ago to end at Union Passenger Terminal with the idea that riders would transfer there to the new Loyola Avenue streetcar line — the RTA has restored their service all the way to Canal Street, taking them out of the UPT entirely.
The Elysian Fields bus line will still run from the lake to Canal Street, and the Marigny/Bywater line will still run from Poland Avenue to Canal, both going through the French Quarter. But riders will see significantly revised schedules on Fridays and Saturdays and less marked differences in their schedules on other days of the week.
Meanwhile, the Riverfront and Canal streetcar lines’ service has been stepped up. The RTA also has extended the 80-Desire/Louisa bus line’s hours.
RIDE has largely praised the changes, which were announced after months of public hearings and are largely seen as a win for those who favor buses over streetcars. But the group said the RTA should do more to boost its bus service, which it said continues to lag years after Hurricane Katrina.
Even the bus route changes have prompted some criticism.
Jill Murray, who takes the Franklin Avenue bus to Southern University at New Orleans, objects to moving that line off North Rampart Street. She could catch the streetcar or one of the buses that will continue to roll on Rampart, but she'd have to transfer to the Franklin line to get to SUNO.
"I'm concerned about missing the connection and the time the transfer will add to my commute to and from work," Murray said in a statement RIDE provided.
RTA and city officials will hold a ribbon-cutting celebration for the new streetcar line Monday at Armstrong Park.