For the first time in two generations, New Orleanians who live beyond the core of the city's well-traveled St. Charles Avenue tourist loop will be able to hop on a streetcar destined for the more residential slices of the city.
In August, the first stake in a ceremonial track was dug, inaugurating the start of what eventually will be a four-mile extension of the existing St. Charles line.
"It's going to help bring back Canal Street," said Bob Tucker, chairman of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, of the streetcar's effect on the boulevard that slices the French Quarter from the downtown district and pushes out into the city's first rim suburban tract.
Tucker recalled an earlier era in the city, in the civil rights 1960s, when he was emerging as one of the most prominent African-American businessmen and political consultants in New Orleans and the same Canal Street line was being demolished.
"Back in those days we thought buses were the future," Tucker said. "So we decommissioned the streetcars."
In the decades since, many preservationists have scorned New Orleans for reducing its streetcar service -- once more than 200 miles of tracks crisscrossing the city -- down to the current 13-mile arc that runs from Uptown Carrollton Avenue downtown to the perimeter of the Quarter.
But not until three years ago did Mayor Marc Morial spearhead a drive to bring back a large portion of the streetcar service to New Orleans, helping to secure funding from the Federal Transit Administration for 80% of the $157 million it will cost to restore streetcar service to Canal Street. The city was required to provide a 20% match.
Construction work on the new line will be completed in three phases, with an initial 1.5 miles set to begin this fall and the final phase scheduled for completion in the spring of 2004. Work for each phase will be open to bid, with the Boh Brothers Construction Company of New Orleans securing a $20 million award for the first phase.
But while workers are excavating the center median of Canal Street for the new line, RTA employees are building the 24 new cars for use on the new line.
"We are the only transit authority in the country that is building our own cars," said Donald Preau, RTA general manager. "And it’s going to be a lot of work."
RTA officials said they were forced to build their own cars because the Perley A. Thomas Car Co. of North Carolina, manufacturer of the original cars -- 35 of which are still operating on the St. Charles line and are more than 75 years old -- has long since gone out of business.
With a crew of 43 craftsmen working out of the RTA's Carrollton barn, Preau is projecting that l8 new cars will be complete within the next year. Those cars will be put to use immediately on the new Canal line, which will be operational even before the Carrollton portion of the line is launched.
Each car costs more than $1.2 million to build and will feature all of the familiar markings of the current cars, including polished wood paneling and reversible iron and wood seating.
But the new cars will also be air-conditioned, an asset that many New Orleanians who have been riding the line for decades say they can't imagine, and will come with lifts for wheelchairs.
"They will look very similar to the St. Charles cars, but they will be a different color -- red with white trim, instead of the standard green on the old cars -- and the roofs, which will house the air-conditioning units, will have a slightly different look to them," Preau said.
Local response to the extended streetcar line, said Morial, has been almost entirely positive, a response that Janet Speyrer, a professor of economics at the University of New Orleans, thinks is part of a general support for infrastructure improvements in New Orleans.
"We have had so much new building going on around here in recent years that I think a lot of people have started to wonder if there is enough room for more," she said. "But when they see improvements made to non-building structures, such as streetcar lines and road and sewer lines, they are just naturally more supportive."
Dave Phelps, senior project manager with the American Public Transportation Association, thinks streetcar commuters in general have better feelings toward this kind of transportation than other forms, such as buses, because of the degree of physical permanence they bring.
"They can see the tracks and the overhead wires and they just feel that streetcars are a part of their lives," he said. "That makes it much easier for local officials to argue in support of extending their service."
Morial thinks such support will override objections that residents in the already-dense French Quarter usually have to construction projects when the RTA begins work on its new Desire Street line, which is slated to start after the completion of the Canal Street extension.
It was the original Desire Street line that inspired the young playwright Tennessee Williams to create his landmark work "A Streetcar Named Desire" as he watched those Perly Thomas cars rattle up and down the French Quarter in the 1940s.
A new Desire line, which would link downtown New Orleans with the teeming Industrial Canal section of the city to the east, could cost as much as $115 million, with construction slated to begin in the fall of 2004.
"We have a lot of streetcar-related construction going on right now," said Preau. "It's a pretty exciting time to be in New Orleans."