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Rails To Recovery: The Role Of Passenger Rail Transportation In Post-Katrina New Orleans And Louisiana

• $2.7 billion total downtown investment, 2005-2015
• $1.3 billion investment within 3 blocks of Loyola Streetcar
• At least $185 million Loyola Avenue investment directly attributable to streetcar expansion

Executive Summary

Around the country, rail projects are increasingly being planned and constructed to fulfill both important trans­portation and economic development goals. Recent research has shown the potential to leverage rail infrastruc­ture investments to help grow economically vital and livable communities. This research, funded through the Gulf Coast Research Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency, investigates two case studies of rail projects in Louisiana. The two cases, a potential intercity rail connection project between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and a streetcar project in downtown New Orleans, show both the significant promise of rail as a recovery tool and the logistical and political barriers to successful implementation.

Research on intercity rail indicates that two key ingredients to date have been lacking in the proposed New Orleans – Baton Rouge passenger rail service: 1) effective leadership championing the project; 2) creative solutions to fund­ing the annual operating expenses, estimated at $14-18 Million. Two case studies are examined to highlight radically different approaches to the successful implementation of new passenger rail service in the US: the Road Runner in New Mexico and the Downeaster in Maine. In both instances, strong leadership prevailed and creative funding strategies were employed.

The $45 Million Loyola Avenue Streetcar line, funded through the US DOT‘s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant Program, shows the potential to leverage transportation investments to help grow strong, livable communities. Roughly 70 projects have been identified in close proximity to the rail project which are in various stages of construction, development or pre-development planning in the New Orleans CBD and ad­joining neighborhoods. In total, recently completed and proposed downtown development projects (2005 to 2015) announced as of September, 2010 will add an estimated 2,314 new housing units, 2,381 new hotel rooms, and more than 390,000 sf of retail space to the downtown area, at an estimated total pri­vate investment figure of $2.7 billion.

More than $1.3 billion of this investment is or will be located within three blocks of the Loyola Avenue streetcar corridor. Some of these projects are being developed or have been designed, reprioritized, or accelerated in partial or direct response to the Loyola Streetcar project. The Hyatt Hotel complex, for example, is being reoriented to face Loyola Avenue, rather than retaining its original main entrance on the opposite side of the building. The Domain Companies‘ $185M South Market District mixed-use development, moreover, is to be sited on Loyola Avenue in di­rect response to the streetcar‘s construction: “What we felt made this site ideal was the streetcar expansion,” observed Domain Companies co-principal Matt Schwartz in a 2010 interview, “The most exciting development opportunities are really converging on this area.”

Our research also indicates that an absence of pro-active policy guiding the integration of land use and transporta­tion within the City Planning Commission and the City Council ultimately inhibits the RTA‘s Program of Projects‘ impact. In addition, many developers interviewed over the course of this project have noted “missing links” in the Program of Projects for streetcar extensions as currently planned. Several of these “missing links,” which include very short additions to proposed alignments, would link proposed streetcar lines to existing transit services and could be made with small investments. More significant extensions of the RTA‘s Program of Projects would reach a greater portion of the community and add complementary connectivity to existing streetcar lines.