By: Rachel Heiligman, Transport for NOLA
Despite the outpouring of community support for extending the streetcar to Poland Avenue, we learned last week that the RTA’s federal TIGER IV grant application was unsuccessful. The project would have created a cohesive transit corridor connecting downtown neighborhoods with the CBD and Union Passenger Terminal along St. Claude, N. Rampart and Loyola while promoting multi-modal connections between several bus routes, Amtrak, Megabus, LA Swift and Greyhound.
There’s a lot of speculation as to why this project was overlooked. Some point to the RTA already receiving TIGER funding for the Loyola phase of the streetcar expansion program. This phase is still under construction and at a recent RTA Board meeting, CEO Justin Augustine suggested that the RTA is unlikely to receive a second TIGER award until the RTA successfully completes construction of the first phase.
Another reason could be that despite selling $75 million in local bonds to finance the second phase of the extension along N. Rampart, the RTA has made little progress in advancing that project over the last several months. It’s possible that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) sees the slow movement on this project as indicative of a lack of capacity at the RTA.
Or perhaps the federal government has concerns that the streetcar design will not result in improved transit service over the bus routes that the streetcar will likely replace. Basic design principles such as putting the streetcar into a dedicated transit lane, spacing stations farther apart so the streetcar can reach higher speeds, and giving the streetcar signal prioritization so that it never sits at a red light would ensure that the new streetcar line results in fast and efficient service. But the RTA and City have not committed to these design principles despite the persistent requests of multiple community leaders.
The good news is that the RTA remains committed to the project. Augustine indicated that the RTA will continue to pursue TIGER funding in the next grant cycle. But perhaps it’s time to develop alternative strategies for the RTA to fund this project.
In addition to TIGER grants, the USDOT also offers federal credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit through their TIFIA program. Local revenue sources should also be explored. Tax increment financing, special assessment districts, and parking, sales, property, and gas taxes are just a few of the methods that should be considered. With a disappointing new federal transportation bill now in place, creating local revenue sources for transit becomes all the more critical.