With the Super Bowl less than three months away, New Orleans is rushing to lay streetcar tracks through one of its busiest corridors to connect by trolley the Louisiana Superdome and the French Quarter.
The Big Easy — which will be the site of the big game Feb. 3 — is no stranger to Super Bowls. In the 47 years of the game’s history, this will be the 10th time for New Orleans to play host.
But this will be the city’s first Super Bowl since Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, killing hundreds and leaving 80 percent of the city under water.
The snarled traffic, construction crews and flying dust along Loyola Avenue where the new streetcar line is being laid embodies the frantic pace of preparations for the Super Bowl. Streets are being repaved in the French Quarter, the airport is undergoing a major renovation and crews are fixing sidewalks, lights and potholes.
For many locals, the streetcar is seen as more than a show of Super Bowl pizazz.
“For anybody who’s trying to cut down on gas, walk out their front door, go a few blocks and catch the transit system, it’ll be good,” said Robert Miles, a 47-year-old chef at one of the big hotels on Loyola. “It was not a waste of money.”
The line will run nearly a mile down Loyola from the Union Passenger Terminal, where Amtrak trains and intercity buses are based, to Canal Street.
On Canal Street, travelers will be able to hop onto other streetcars and get to the nearby French Quarter, the National World War II Museum, the Cemetery District, the oaks of Audubon Park, the mansions of St. Charles Avenue and the art museum, golf courses and lagoons of City Park.
The last new streetcar line opened in 2004 when the Canal Street streetcar, which had been discontinued in 1964, was restored to service. The riverfront streetcar started service in 1988.
Funding comes from a $45 million federal transportation grant. The U.S. Department of Transportation is funding similar lines in other cities to connect long-distance railway travelers to streetcars.
The target is a traveler like Lawrence Freeman, a 50-year-old photographer from Seattle. He had recently arrived at the Union Passenger Terminal by train from Washington, getting in late one evening. He walked from the train station to his hotel.
If there had been a streetcar, he said he would have taken it. Travelers will be able to do just that by mid-January, when the Loyola line is completed.
But the project also is viewed as a downtown revitalization tool.
“Until the streetcar was announced, there was little activity, or anticipation of development along Loyola,” said James Amdal, senior fellow at the Transportation Institute at the University of New Orleans. “That has definitely changed.”
The changes along Loyola are palpable. High-rises that had been empty for years — vacant well before Katrina hit — are being renovated. An upscale supermarket opened nearby and a $75 million residential and retail project called the South Market District is set to start soon.
“Streetcars have proven to be an incredible source for revitalizing commercial corridors,” said Rachel Heiligman, executive director of the advocacy group Transport for NOLA.
Still, it hasn’t all gone smoothly.
The work is running over budget and is behind schedule. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority pegs the cost at $52 million, about $7 million more than projected.