The Regional Transit Authority is pumping the brakes on a test run to speed up the Canal Street streetcar line by reducing stops and shutting down vehicle crossings along its route.
The agency announced last month that it would be moving forward with a pilot program intended to cut an average of 12 minutes off the more than half-hour it takes the streetcar to travel up or down Canal Street between Carrollton Avenue and the river.
But outrage over the longer walks and more difficult drives that such changes would entail sparked outrage from some residents, prompting the RTA to decide to take more time to listen to concerns before moving forward with the pilot program, which would run for several months.
RTA Interim Executive Director Jared Munster told the City Council’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday that no final decisions have been made on how many closures would be part of the final plan and that the transit agency will be gathering community input before moving forward.
In addition, studies and discussions with the Department of Public Works about closing any crossings on Canal Street will be needed before any decisions can be made.
“We don’t know if we’re asking Public Works to close off 20 intersections or if we’re asking them to close off possibly four intersections,” Munster said. “We’re essentially, for lack of a better word, on pause while we go through this process.”
Skepticism covered Angela Robertson’s face when she heard there might be some changes in store for the Canal Street streetcar line.
While officials suggested last month that the program could be in place by this summer, nothing now is expected to be done until September at the earliest, Munster said.
In the meantime, RTA officials will continue to refine the plan.
“We don’t have all the answers yet, and that’s why we’re starting this conversation,” Munster said.
With 3 million riders annually, about 17 percent of the RTA’s total ridership, the Canal streetcar line is considered to be the backbone of the city’s transit system. About 90 percent of the streetcar riders are locals, Munster said.
Because it runs in the neutral ground and generally doesn’t have to worry about the surrounding traffic, the streetcar line should be one of the most efficient in the city. But its 2.7-mile route is studded with stops where it has to pause to pick up or drop off passengers as well as crossings that are often blocked by vehicles trying to get across Canal Street.
To address that problem, the RTA’s plan would close numerous stops along the route, mostly in the area between Claiborne Avenue and Carrollton Avenue. Between Claiborne and the river, the transit agency also planned to experiment with collecting fares from people waiting for the streetcar so as to speed up boarding.
Making the streetcar more efficient has been a goal for some transit advocates, who have pointed to its importance as part of region’s public transit. In addition to serving riders in New Orleans, the route also serves as a connection to transit in Jefferson Parish.
As it is, the line is “great for a tourist. It’s great for someone who might ride once in a while trying to get to a Saints game where time isn’t really of the essence,” said Alex Posorske, executive director of the transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans. “But if you’re trying to get in from Metairie, trying to get in from Gentilly or trying to get in from the East, it’s just no good.”
However, residents along the route have worried about what the effect of getting rid of many stops would be. And residents complained they hadn't been given a chance to weigh in on the proposal.
“When you’re talking about 12 minutes of time saved in streetcar distance, you’re not taking into account the additional walking distance” to get to a boarding point blocks away, said Mary Logsdon, who said she often sees mothers carrying babies and residents with groceries trying to get to the streetcar.
The proposed changes drew skepticism from council members as well.
“Definitely a pause button is appropriate at this time with all the confusion,” Councilman Jared Brossett said. “You all should be cautious about reducing access for the public and our transit riders as it relates to this busy and important mode of transportation.”
Brossett also asked about the possibility of adding an express bus to Canal Street rather than focusing on the streetcar. But Munster said that would be complicated both by the cost of running an additional bus and the fact that drivers and vehicles are needed on other routes during the peak hours when an express would be most needed.
Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said it is important to ensure the city’s transit is working efficiently but crucial not to “alienate the people who live along the corridors” that would be affected.