Federal grant to finance a new ferry terminal at the foot of Canal Street _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Passengers disembark from the Mississippi River ferry in Algiers. A new ferry terminal is in the works.

After nearly two hours of debate, the New Orleans City Planning Commission on Tuesday took no official action on a request by the Regional Transit Authority to demolish the aging ferry terminal at the foot of Canal Street to make way for a sleek 3,600-square-foot glass building.

The City Planning Commission voted 4-3 in favor of allowing the request, but that was one vote short of the five members needed to make an official recommendation to the City Council, which will have the final say on the request.

The commission has nine members. Commissioner Craig Mitchell recused himself from the discussion, and Walter Isaacson was absent.

"To approve the demolition of something without knowing what's going to replace it in this circumstance is unwise," said commission Chairman Robert Steeg, who noted community opposition was a factor in his decision to oppose the request.

Tuesday's vote came a day after dozens of residents showed up to denounce the proposed terminal design at a meeting at the Federal City auditorium in Algiers, in what often felt like a replay of a similar meeting last month.

The critics contend the design should include a covered walkway that would allow riders to get to and from the ferry without being rained on, plus a pedestrian bridge over the riverfront railroad tracks to avoid long delays in getting access to the ferry when slow-moving New Orleans Public Belt Railroad trains are passing.

The proposed new terminal would accommodate two new high-speed, catamaran-style ferry boats, designed for transporting more than 140 passengers each. But critics said the RTA doesn’t need high-speed boats when those boats travel over the Mississippi River for less than a mile.

Also, because people wait less time for a ferry than they often do for buses — seven minutes on average — perhaps the terminal doesn’t need air conditioning or restrooms, Ralph Bradshaw of the Algiers Point Association argued. “Why not take that money and build a (pedestrian) bridge?” he said.

A lack of money and an unrelated lawsuit are among the major barriers blocking changes to the plans, RTA officials said at Monday's public meeting.

The commission's vote came after a series of Algiers residents and community leaders spoke out against the proposed design.

Critics, including former City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, also bemoaned a lack of community input in the process and said the design was intended to appeal to tourists and not Algiers residents who rely on the ferry to get to work.

"This project is deeply flawed because the public was not included" in the planning process, Palmer said.

The criticism drew an impassioned defense from Transdev Vice President Justin Augustine III, who doubles as the RTA's general manager. Transdev runs the RTA’s operations.

Augustine said there is little money for much of what residents want. He said the existing terminal building is "antiquated" and "unsafe" and its escalators are "beyond repair."

Officials hope to have the project completed by early 2018.

"We've planned every step to get to a construction phase that will make this a successful project for the (city's) tercentennial" in 2018, Augustine said.

The redesigned terminal would no longer present a physical barrier between Woldenberg Riverfront Park and the Aquarium of the Americas on one side of Canal Street and Spanish Plaza and the Riverwalk mall on the other.

It will cost at least $15 million to get started on the terminal project. The RTA has secured that much through federal grants. The money for additional features such as a pedestrian bridge would need to come from other sources.

One alternative would be to partner with a nearby building, such as the adjacent city-owned World Trade Center that is supposed to become a Four Seasons Hotel, and ask it to open up a bridge that ferry passengers could use to cross the tracks.

But the World Trade Center project has been mired in litigation for nearly two years, and its backers have been cagey about any changes in the design plans, Augustine said.

“This stuff is expensive,” he said. “So as much as we can coordinate the discussion between them and us, we can collectively come up with solutions on this.”

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.