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New Orleans Transit--image 1
Canal Street Line cable cars will be traveling from Loyola Avenue in New Orleans to the Union Passenger Terminal on a new 0.8 mi extension that is scheduled to be in service by June 2012. AP Photo/James A. Finley

New Orleans is beginning work on the first of three extensions to its historic streetcar lines to better connect the city’s neighborhoods, business district, and entertainment venues. 

November 1, 2011--Whether it is because 1920s olive green streetcars supplied by the Perley A. Thomas Car Works still clack down St. Charles Avenue, or as Vivien Leigh once said, “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire …,” few public transportation systems are imbued with the romance and character of the New Orleans streetcar lines. City leaders are capitalizing on this with three planned extensions to the system, designed to serve both tourists and residents. Phase one, an 0.8 mi, dual-track addition to the Canal Street Line, is under construction and scheduled to be in service in June 2012. 

“Streetcars are one of the things that make our city unique, and this line will breathe new life into our transportation system,” Mayor Mitchell Landrieu said at the June groundbreaking.

The extension, funded by a $45-million federal grant, follows Loyola Avenue from Canal Street to Union Passenger Terminal (UPT), thus connecting the streetcar system with an important transportation hub that houses the city’s Amtrak station and a Greyhound bus depot and provides access to taxi cabs and local bus lines. Loyola Avenue borders the central business district (CDB) and passes near the Louisiana Superdome, contributing to design estimates by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) that between 1,054 and 1,417 riders will utilize the extension each day.

New Orleans Transit--image 2 

Workers in New Orleans are building a new streetcar line addition that will border the Central Business District. Courtesy of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority 

Work on the project coincides with $1.1 billion in development in nearby areas of the city, including a $243-million renovation of the Hyatt Regency, which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina. (See “The ERP Report: What Went Wrong and Why,” Civil Engineering, June 2007, pages 54-61, 73-76.)

The engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff (PB), of New York City, which designed the Canal Street Line, serves as the construction manager on this project, charged with overseeing quality control, construction inspections, safety management, document control, environmental management, and providing a resident engineer to make on-site judgments and assist the contractor with questions.

The extension will use standard 150 lb, 5 ft, 2.5 in. gauge tracks placed within the inside lanes of Loyola Avenue, which is divided by a median that will house the extension’s canopy-covered platform stations, according to Paul Skoutelas, P.E., M.ASCE, a senior vice president of PB. The inside lanes will then be shared by cars, buses, and streetcars.

To accommodate the 20-ton steel and wood streetcars, the rails will rest on a foundation more than 21 in. thick. Engineers called for a layer of permeable geotextile liner, which is topped with 9 in. of coarse crushed stone, which is topped with a 12 in. deep concrete track slab. The rails will rest on this slab, anchored by rail fasteners—long bolts that go through the base of the rail on both sides and tie directly into the foundation, Skoutelas says. Surrounding the rails will be 7.5 in. of additional concrete, which will form the road surface for the mixed-use lanes. Streetcars will draw power from an overhead catenary system supplying 600 volts of direct current drawn from the RTA’s existing traction power system.

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The Loyola Avenue addition is one of three planned in New Orleans. When finished, the streetcar system will circle the French Quarter and offer better access to the Central Business District. Courtesy of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority 

Although phase one is a short extension of an existing transit system, placing the tracks and their deep foundations in a busy area provides challenges to PB and its team. An extensive utility survey by the RTA revealed that box culverts on Loyola Avenue cannot bear the loads from the streetcars. PB is overseeing the construction of structural supports that will serve as at-grade bridges, transferring the loads away from the culverts.

Maintaining traffic flow near the central business district of a major city also known for a love of celebrations presents challenges as well. Skoutelas says PB maintains a calendar of special events in the city and works with officials to minimize the impact of the project on nearby professional football games, Mardi Gras extravaganzas, and other weekend festivities for which the city is famous.

Excavation near UPT presents PB with an enormous question mark. Environmental assessments in the planning stages of the project raise the question of hazardous materials around the station, which was built in 1954. Skoutelas says engineers don’t know what they’ll find during excavation but have developed detailed plans for handling and disposing of any hazardous materials uncovered by on-site tests.

The UPT extension is one of three planned for the historic streetcar system. The RTA sold $75 million in revenue bonds in 2010 to fund a loop around the city’s renowned French Quarter. A third extension will expand the Riverfront/Convention Center line.

“When you look at the configuration, the ultimate goal here is to loop both the central business district and the French Quarter,” Skoutelas says. “Once it’s all done … you’ll have a nice loop of the street car system that will be available to transport people around the French Quarter and even the CBD.”


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