New Street Rail in NOLA - The Convention Center Line

Liberty Place at the foot of Canal Street in the 1900s. This is where Canal and Tchopitoulas Streets come together. Liberty Place was torn up in 1965, to make way for the Rivergate Convention Center (now the site of Harrah's Casino).

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) has been very diligent in their pursuit of federal stimulus funds, making pitches for three new streetcar lines in New Orleans. Yesterday, we laid out the plan for the return of the St. Claude line. Today we'll look at NORTA's second proposal, a return of part of the old Tchopitoulas line to support the Convention Center.

(more after the jump)

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center was built for the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair. It was the main exhibition hall for the fair, and was converted for convention/trade show use in 1985. Since that time, it's been expanded twice so now it contains over 3million sq ft of floor space. It's the cornerstone of the city's convention industry. The only problem (if it can be considered as such) with the Convention Center is that it's a bit of a walk from facility to the French Quarter, and that's where the city wants all those conventioneers once their day sessions come to an end. To this end, NORTA opened the Riverfront Streetcar line in 1988 and expanded it in 1997.

The track route in red represents the existing Canal Street trackage, and the rose-colored line is the existing Riverfront trackage behind the Convention Center. The new proposal is for a loop like that would go one way up Tchopitoulas, turn down Poydras, then continue up Convention Center Boulevard to Henderson St. At Henderson, the line would turn towards the river, then head down, along the river, to link up with the existing Riverfront line trackage just up from Julia Street.

This line makes a lot of sense. The old Tchopitoulas line linked the wharves and warehouses up the river from Canal Street to the transit hub. The Convention Center line would do the same thing for both conventioneers and residents of the Warehouse District.  While the Riverfront line did a lot to promote riding streetcars in the 1990s, it was never integrated into the NORTA transit system.  Riders had to pay a separate fare and could not transfer.  The down-river half of the Riverfront line was brought into the system with the return of the Canal Line in 2004.  Canal cars make a left-turn at the foot of Canal St., heading downriver to the French Market Terminal.  Still, that leaves a gap on the uptown side.  Riverfront is still a popular line, but more with tourists who want just experience the ride.

Construction of the Convention Center line will not be without complications, however.  The neutral ground on Convention Center Blvd. is narrow, so two-track operation won't be possible.  That's why the line will be a loop.  Additionally, the street is a high-voltage power line corridor, making any construction work slow-going.  As you can see from the above photo, trackage on Canal Street currently only makes a left-turn curve onto Riverfront.  To complete the loop for cars coming down river from Henderson St on the expanded Riverfront leg, tracks the foot of Canal will have to be expanded to allow Riverfront traffic to make a left-turn to head up-river on Canal, so they can turn onto Tchopitoulas St. 

Then there's the biggest obstacle to construction of this line, the Convention Center itself.  The logistics involved with moving convention-goers to and from CBD/French Quarter hotels is serious business, and the intense construction involved with putting down streetcar tracks in the neutral ground of Convention Center Blvd. will make those logistics painful.  Canal Street is 140' wide, so drivers could work around neutral ground construction; not so here.  This will be more like the scene on N. Carrollton Ave., when the Canal line's spur to City Park was being built.  As much as businesses on Carrollton wanted the streetcar, the year-long construction process put a serious economic hurt on many of them. 

In the convention business, the fear is that something will happen which will make a group decide not to come back to New Orleans.  Logistical complications in front of the massive hall could do that.  Convention and construction schedules will have to be co-ordinated tightly to ensure that visitors don't leave with a bad impression of the facility and its surroundings.

Once completed, however, the Convention Center line will be an exciting and green public transit alternative for visitors as well as Warehouse District/Lower Garden District residents alike.

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