Skepticism covered Angela Robertson’s face when she heard there might be some changes in store for the Canal Street streetcar line.
But sitting at the Carrollton Avenue stop on one of the busiest public transit routes in New Orleans, as she often does, Robertson sighed with relief when she heard the plan might mean she would have a quicker commute home.
The Regional Transit Authority is considering an ambitious test later this year aimed at cutting the time of the ride from Carrollton to Harrah’s Casino by more than a third, essentially turning the streetcar route into almost an express line.
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That would mean eliminating some stops and closing off some of the intersections across the neutral ground so that streetcars can travel up to half a mile without having to pick up passengers or wait while cars block the track.
“I think that’s a good idea,” Robertson said. “They make too many stops.”
The proposal, which has not yet been finalized, could be rolled out as a pilot project from May through December of this year.
Officials say it would trim almost 14 minutes from the trip from the river to Carrollton and about 10 minutes and 30 seconds going the other way, according to a report presented to RTA board members Thursday. That would mean trips in either direction would take about 22 minutes.
That would represent a crucial improvement on one of the most important streetcar lines in the city, which connects the city’s business and entertainment districts to bus routes to New Orleans East and Jefferson Parish, said Alex Posorske, executive director of the transit advocacy organization Ride New Orleans.
“If you’re going to tweak one line to make it better — I’m not talking about making it better for tourists but for active riders — you couldn’t take a better approach than looking at this line because it’s the spine of the system,” Posorske said.
The Canal streetcar runs in the neutral ground, which in theory should mean a faster trip since it should be able to avoid much of the congestion that often clogs the roadway.
But in practice, that advantage is negated by the need to stop almost every block to pick up passengers — an average of about 10 stops for every mile of the route. The RTA’s Strategic Mobility Plan recommends no more than four — and as few as two — stops every mile to keep busy lines running quickly.
“For one or two blocks of extra walking for most people, you’d get 12 minutes of time savings” on average, said Tim Kennedy, director of the program management office for Transdev, which runs the RTA's buses and streetcars.
The plan calls for eliminating 30 of the 49 stops along the route, mostly in the area between Carrollton and Claiborne avenues. The longest distance between stops would be the seven-block stretch between Carrollton and Jefferson Davis Parkway.
The eliminated stops would largely coincide with the closing of intersections and crossings that allow U-turns across the neutral ground. According to the plan, 17 intersections that don’t have traffic signals would be closed, as would five turnarounds.
That’s aimed at solving another problem for the streetcars: time spent waiting while cars block the tracks.
Closing those crossings would also help prevent accidents, Kennedy said.
“If all we did was reduce the collision rate by 24 percent, that’s worth it,” Commissioner Sharon Wegner said, referencing the estimate in the report on how many wrecks could be averted.
The program is expected to cost about $118,000 to pay for concrete barriers to block the intersections and to hire ticket-takers who would work at the Bourbon Street stop, the busiest on the line, to speed up the boarding process there.
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Of course, how the plan is received by riders would likely depend on whether their normal stops would be eliminated.
Outside of the RTA’s headquarters on Canal, Felicia Bargky pulled a rolling briefcase to the stop where she regularly boards the line. Under the agency’s plan, that stop would be closed and its users would have to walk to Broad Street.
“Are you saying I’ll have two blocks more to get the streetcar?” Bargky asked. “That doesn’t sound good at all.”
Others at the stop shared her skepticism.
“I wouldn’t do that because it means people would have to walk further,” said Jeremiah Gable. “They should keep all the stops and put more streetcars” on the line.
But Posorske said he expects people will come around when they see the plan's benefits. And, because it would be just a test, changes can be made if it isn’t working out, he said.
“If it’s really not working for people, everyone together can make an informed decision to say this is not what we as a community want,” he said.