Friday, April 07, 2006

All Aboard

Just because a city has to be rebuilt, doesn't mean that it has to be rebuilt exactly as before. And this is precisely the time to upgrage.

Planning professionals on the local, regional and state level say now's the time to consider options that may have been placed on the back burner in the past. While admitting some of their ideas are pie-in-the-sky thinking, they point to post-Katrina traffic gridlock and a tightening housing market as clear signals for the need to improve infrastructure.
So what pieces of infrastructure should we build anew?

CityBusiness has some suggestions.
  1. Commuter rail: The slow crawl of traffic heading into the city each day, and again westbound every afternoon, is fueling a drive among planning professionals for commuter train service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
  2. Housing concerns: [Ed] Durabb said the commuter rail proposal fits in with his vision for housing in Jefferson Parish and the metro area.

    While still offering traditional detached single-family homes, Durabb said he would like to see residential development emphasize urban living with easy access to transit.

  3. Hitting the streets: Durabb says the main problem contributing to traffic on the East Bank is the lack of connector streets. The construction of West Napoleon Avenue absorbed some of the overflow from other east-west routes, but similar projects are unlikely because of the lack of right of way.
Regarding the need for a commuter rail system, the solution is more complex than connecting New Orleans with Baton Rouge. While the I-10 between BR and NO is constantly busy, except for mass evacuations, traffic typically moves above the posted speed limit.

What the city really needs is a combination of a commuter rail connecting nearby suburbs such as Metairie/Kenner and Slidell with the CBD. This will alleviate interstate congestion, which is very heavy at peak hours, and the parking shortage downtown. Fewer parking garages downtown could also mean more space for office and residential blocks.

Also, the CBD should also be connected to the airport with its own rail line. This will not only take many taxis off the Interstate, but will make the commute from the airport cheaper for your average traveler.

Instead of paying tens of millions of dollars to build a rail line between BR and NO, why not use the existing Amtrak lines to connect New Orleans with the rest of the Gulf Coast. It doesn't make sense to buy a train ticket to travel to Chicago or Atlanta with airline tickets being a cheap as they are now. But buying a train ticket to spend a long weekend in Pensacola, Destin or Mobile may not make the trip shorter, but I would make it more relaxing. The passenger rail insustry needs to realize it is not the 1880's any more.

The last piece of the rail puzzle for New Orleans needs to be expanded streetcar lines. Not only does the street car add charm to an already charming city, it is much more pleasant way to get from one part of town to another if you are not in a hurry. When the St. Charles line still ran, the cars were always full during morning and evening drive time with people going to and from their work downtown and homes uptown. Conntecting other destinations with streetcar lines could help get some cars off the streets and help relieve congestion. Streetcars could also help raise property values. It's not hard to imagine someone paying more for a house if it is located within walking distance to streetcars. And the city could use the money.

Mr. Durabb's idea that we emphasize urban living with easy access to transit is already underway. As we speak, once vacant condos in the Warehouse District now have waiting lists and plans for high-rise developments are already on the boards.

My conclusion; planners are guilty of focussing on either the big-picture or the little-picture. When planning the rebuilding of the city and the gulf south we need to plan from the block level, the neighborhood level, community level, city level, metro-area level and regional level and back down again. What we do at the block level can have repercussions on the city level and actions taken at the regional level can effect the neighborhood.

Planners have to be aware that their actions have unintended consequences and not get caught up in the pie-in-the-sky dreams believing all will be well and make sure that the bullet train doesn't derail.

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