Parsons Brinckerhoff photo
Expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2016, the Regional Transit Authority’s French Quarter streetcar expansion in New Orleans is expected to bring significant economic development to the neighborhoods they pas
Expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2016, the Regional Transit Authority’s French Quarter streetcar expansion in New Orleans is expected to bring significant economic development to the neighborhoods they pass through once construction wraps up next year. The current North Rampart Street/St. Claude Avenue project includes building streetcar track along 1.6 miles in the left travel lane adjacent to the neutral ground on both sides between Canal Street and Elysian Fields Avenue. The plans also include a dedicated bicycle lane on the lakeside of the street.
“This work is needed to continue to revitalize the city and to restore a historic neighborhood,” said Patrice Bell Mercadel, director of marketing and communications, Transdev/Regional Transit Authority(RTA). “The timing was right, due to availability of resources and the recent completion of the Loyola line. With this continued expansion of rail and integrated bus and ferry service, communities across New Orleans are being connected to spur additional growth.”
The construction contract value is $41.2 million. According to Mercadel, the finished project will mean better access, equitable transit services and connectivity to other streetcar routes and bus lines.
“The streetcar will bring opportunity for economic growth to area businesses and residents. It also will bring private investment, as proven by prior streetcar builds, and allow neighborhood residents the ability to access jobs and services located in downtown New Orleans, and connect to transit services across the city,” said Mercadel.
Attention to detail has been extremely important during the planning of the project, because of New Orleans’ rich history.
“RTA and Transdev are committed to not only maintaining the historic character of this neighborhood, but restoring element that make it uniquely its own community within the city,” said Mercadel.
The new Rampart line is part of a $3.5 billion, long-term spending program at the RTA, which includes more than 33 mi. (53.1 km) worth of new streetcar lines. The project is being financed through public bonds issued by the RTA.
In January, 2015 city leaders broke ground on the new line. The contractor began utility work between Orleans Avenue and St. Phillip Street, followed by all remaining utility work and track installation beginning at Elysian Fields Avenue toward Canal Street. A key step in the streetcar expansion project was the installation of the Half Grand Union track, which ties the North Rampart Streetcar route to Canal Street and Loyola Avenue. The work took place in July and lasted several weeks.
According to Michael Zeitz, construction and quality assurance manager of the multinational engineering and design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, “We were looking for a way to minimize the impact and accelerate the work using a new method of rail encapsulation . We appreciate the Department of Public Works for allowing us to shut down half the intersection.”
Canal Street between University and Basin streets and North Rampart Street between Canal and Iberville streets were closed for 30 days beginning at 7 a.m. while the work and installation of the Half Grand Union took place.
Contractors made design changes that significantly expedited the process. Work was performed nonstop, 24/7, using the new plan. Crews were able to quickly demolish the intersection of Rampart and Canal to install rail. What would haven taken four months to complete was finished in only 30 days.
“This was huge, because that is the tie-in point that allows streetcars to go down the extensions,” said Zeitz. “We had to demolish and totally take out a big segment of rail, get into the street, shut down traffic at a key part of the city at Canal and Rampart and install the turnouts and switches that would allow the cars to egress and ingress Rampart Street.
“Also, once you get underground, nothing is ever as it appears to be. We had several setbacks and change, but and rolled with the punches to keep on schedule with the help of others.”
Martin Pospisil, Transdev’s program manager said completion of Half Grand Union was a major milestone.
“This recent expansion is a second phase of the expansion that started in 2011. The first phase was the Loyola streetcar line to Canal Street. The Half Grand Union installation was part of the scope of work under that contract, as well. We had to tie new car lines into the existing Canal Street lines. The design was different at this intersection. It was a complicated installation with a lot of traffic.
“During the Loyola expansion, we kept inconvenience in mind and were looking for ways to minimize the impact. We decided we would approach the Department of Public Works and ask if they would allow us to shut down half the intersection. Their first reaction was that we couldn’t do that, because Canal Street is one of busiest streets in New Orleans. But we were able to convince them that if they let us, we could work non-stop and with new design could get everything done in 30 days. They agreed to that,” said Pospisil.
“It’s truly amazing how this team was able to finish the scope of work in that amount of time. It was incredible. It was done thanks to a significant amount of planning, but also thanks to great teamwork by everyone involved. Also, keep in mind that New Orleans is full of major events. It’s a city of entertainment with lots of tourists coming to town. For most of the year, there is always something going on here. Summer is typically a slower time for the city, so we established the date of July 12 for the start date for this work. We then shut down half the intersection until the work was done.”
Pospisil said the weather proved to be a major concern.
“During the shutdown, rain was not the issue, but extreme heat. I think if was one of the hottest summers in 25 years. The heat index was over 100 degrees. There were cooling stations, and there were times our guys had to take breaks and make sure they were staying hydrated.”
As for the final alignment, it is in the street, instead of the neutral ground. A detailed investigation of subsurface and above-ground existing conditions was carried out, to determine the most practical track design. Tracks are designed for existing travel lanes, because the neutral ground is not wide enough to accommodate two streetcar tracks along with existing utilities.
In many areas, the neutral ground on North Rampart Street is approximately 20 ft. (6 m) wide or less. The installation of two streetcar tracks with minimum space for clearance between the two tracks would require a track bed of approximately 28 to 30 ft. (8.5 m) wide.
Crews have already finished welding hundreds of feet of railing. Utility work continues, and teams have been busy installing foundations on the neutral grounds for street lights and overhead systems that will carry streetcar wires. Water lines and sewer lines are being replaced and are being relocated to accommodate the placement of tracks as needed.
The main phase of construction will be paid for with money from a 2010 bond sale. Between 50 to 100 workers have been at the job site, generally working ten-hour days. One of the biggest challenges on the project has been dealing with underground utilities.
Studies found there were significant underground utilities and overhead lines to address, including local telephone and cable television lines, internet fiber optic lines, major natural gas and water pipes, local electric and sewer lines and nationwide fiber optic trunk lines. The lines could not remain in place under the tracks, since the tracks would prevent future maintenance access and the weight from the tracks and streetcars could damage the pipes and conduits. Some of the utilities have been relocated, but others would have been too expensive and time consuming to do so.
Six sheltered streetcar stops will be placed to provide for the most efficient transit operation. The shelter designs are compatible with historic neighborhood standards. In addition, each shelter will have seating, lights and bicycle parking.
Historically accurate light fixtures will replace the current cobra-style street lights. The lights will be a combination of refurbished vintage lights and replicas of the traditional lights.
The streetcars used on the line will be taken from the rolling stock of red streetcars that currently operate along the Canal Street and Loyola Avenue lines. Designed as replicas of the historic 1923-24 Perley Thomas streetcars that operate on the St. Charles line, they were built by RTA craftsmen.
Materials being used on the project include 1.2 million lbs. (544,310 kg) of reinforced steel, 15,000 cu. yds. (11,468 cu m) of concrete, 9,500 linear ft. (2,895.6 m) of underground utilities and 192 foundations for OCS and light poles. Equipment in use has included several track hoes, backhoes, bobcats and drilling machines.
“Our foundations are 25 feet deep, so typically you’d use an excavator with an auger, but the general contractor used a vacuum truck instead,” said Pospisil. “ During the Loyola work, there were lots of underground obstructions, so drilling becomes difficult. Vacuuming allows you to basically find the conflicts and work around them in a much better way. We’re also cognizant of where we are, right next to the French Quarter.”
Officials also have had to deal with individuals who’ve challenged the work. Numerous public hearings have been held throughout the community, to make residents aware of the ongoing construction and to address any concerns.
The plan’s specifics had also drawn debate when the RTA unveiled them at a series of public meetings back in 2013. The transit advocacy group “Ride New Orleans” argued for installing dedicated streetcar lanes instead of shared lanes.
Said Zeitz, “Currently, we’re in a certain area between Esplanade and Elysian Fields. It’s at the far end of the job, and it’s the terminating point where we are installing a double crossover at the end of the project, so that the streetcars can get back to their original destination. We have most of the infrastructure work concentrated between Esplanade and Elysian Fields. There are several water line installations, sewer lines and drain lines involved. We’ve encountered several obstructions, so we’ve had to do some redirection, rerouting and redesigning as we go along. That’s where our heaviest concentration of construction is occurring.”
Pospisil said space to perform the various tasks also is a challenge.
“We are greatly constrained with residents and businesses all over. You’ve got a lot of small shops nearby, and there’s the French Quarter, the oldest section in the city. There are also considerations when it comes to vibration and noise.”
Dealing with traffic also has been an issue for work crews.
“It’s tedious,” said Zeitz, “but it’s just something you have to deal with. We’re having to do things in segments. It’s not easy for anyone, but New Orleans residents are very resilient, because they’ve been through so much. It’s something we have to put up with until the bitter end, but there really aren’t too many complaints.”
Pospisil said this construction is a sign of progress. “What people really want is to be aware of what’s coming up. We use social media to inform everyone about closures. Traffic can be tough in rush hour, but when you keep everyone prepared, it’s always manageable.”
Officials say things are moving as scheduled for the entire project, which Pospisil has fully endorsed.
“Many young people are moving into the city, and there’s a demand for public transportation. Streetcars drive economic growth through neighborhoods that were once forgotten. Bringing streetcars back is a great pleasure, and it makes me proud to be a part of what’s taking place.”
Streetcars in New Orleans have been an key part of the city’s public transportation network since the first half of the 19th century. The longest of New Orleans’ streetcar lines, the St. Charles Avenue line, is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world.