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St. Charles Streetcars Resume

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The Times Picayune, 12/19/2006

By Frank Donze
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

The first step in the long road to restoration for the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is set to take place Tuesday, as transit officials bring back daily service between Canal Street and Lee Circle for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

Scheduled for 10:30 a.m., the ceremonial trip around Robert E. Lee’s statue marks the completion of the initial phase of a three-part reformation project expected to last at least another 15 months.

Under plans still being developed, the Regional Transit Authority hopes to reopen a second leg of the historic St. Charles line, between Lee Circle and Napoleon Avenue, by next summer. The final segment, which will restore service from Napoleon to the terminus on Carrollton Avenue, likely won’t be finished until spring or early summer of 2008, officials said.

“We’re trying to do it right and make it as reliable as possible,” Fred Basha, the RTA’s capital projects director, said last week. “When we finish, everything should be in really good shape and much easier to maintain.”
Since New Orleans’ post-Katrina transit service resumed in October 2005, the RTA has operated buses on St. Charles Avenue, a service that will continue until the streetcars are ready to roll. The streetcar line, one of New Orleans’ signature attractions, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

35 streetcars saved

The RTA resumed service on a portion of the Canal Street streetcar line about a year ago. In the spring, the agency added the Riverfront line and the remainder of the Canal Street line, including the Carrollton Avenue spur.

The 35 venerable Perley Thomas Car Co. streetcars used on St. Charles Avenue survived Hurricane Katrina because they were stored on high ground inside the RTA’s Willow Street facility. The faded green cars are being used on the Canal and Riverfront lines to temporarily replace the newer, red street cars destroyed in the flood.

Basha said the St. Charles line — historically the RTA’s busiest route with more than 3.5 million boardings a year — was long overdue for rehabilitation even before the August 2005 storm.

Coincidentally, the agency had planned to launch an end-to-end replacement of the electrical system that drives the streetcars on Sept. 6, 2005, about a week after Katrina shut down public transit in New Orleans for more than two months and forced the RTA staff to relocate temporarily to Baton Rouge.

The damage caused by the hurricane, however, transformed what would have been an inconvenience into a service shutdown.

Instead of closing the streetcar line one section at a time to replace overhead wires, the RTA now must install an entirely new network to supplant the one ripped apart by high winds and fallen tree limbs.

Substation ruined

Further complicating matters was the destruction of the electrical substation that supplies the juice to move the streetcars, as well as the heavy cables that relay the current. The now-defunct station is on Upperline Street, near the midpoint of the St. Charles Avenue stretch of the line.

The loss of that facility left the RTA with no way to get power to the streetcar line, Basha said.

A portable power plant, on loan to the RTA from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, has been running the Canal Street line and will be used to drive the Lee Circle extension. The Riverfront line has its own power source.

The wrecked Uptown substation housed three “rectifiers,” devices that convert the alternating current electricity that flows into homes and businesses into the direct current needed to run a streetcar. One rectifier was used for cars headed Uptown, one for downtown service and the third for a backup.

RTA administrators have long recognized that it was never a good idea to have all three rectifiers in the same location. The pre-Katrina upgrade included a provision — to be paid for with an $11.8 million federal grant — to place new stations at three points along the route. Basha said the agency will stick to that strategy.

The first of the new stations will be placed beneath the Crescent City Connection at Calliope Street. The second will be located near the old Upperline station, while the third will go inside the Carrollton Barn at the intersection of Dublin and Jeannette streets.

The Calliope Street location will allow the RTA to run streetcars to Napoleon Avenue.

“What’s more important,” Basha said, “is the additional flexibility this gives us. If something like this (Katrina) ever happens again and power gets knocked out, it won’t take the whole line out of service.”

Wires to be strung

But before the RTA can power up, it must finish stringing a new and improved network of overhead wires and cables.

To prepare for the job, RTA contractors already have replaced more than 150 of the 560 poles that line the route.

Work is under way installing new crossarms on the poles. Once that task is finished, heavy-duty cables from the electrical stations must be connected to system. Only then, Basha said, can the “trolley” wires be run along the line.

The good news is that the rails and crossties, along with the bed beneath the St. Charles Avenue track, survived Katrina intact. The RTA replaced that infrastructure in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and recent tests indicate that streetcars could operate now if a power source were available.

One aspect of the restoration that will have to wait is the landscaping of the St. Charles neutral ground. Because the work ahead will require repeatedly moving heavy equipment on and off the median, city officials have no plans to resod and replant anytime soon.

As for when the line will be back in service, RTA administrators declined to set hard and fast timetables, saying the process could be slowed by bad weather, unforeseen glitches and the still-needed approval of some federal dollars.

But Basha hopes to get service to Napoleon Avenue up and running before Labor Day. He said the entire St. Charles line should be running no later than summer 2008.

“We will do everything possible to speed that up,” he said. “And of course, we will continue to run buses in the meantime.”

The Times-Picayune. .


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