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New Orleans sees revival of historic streetcars

A Street Car travels down St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans in this May 25, 2012 file photo. New Orleans, once crisscrossed by sprawling stree
A Street Car travels down St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans in this May 25, 2012 file photo. New Orleans, once crisscrossed by sprawling stree

By Mark Guarino

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - New Orleans, once crisscrossed by sprawling streetcar lines, is embracing anew the rumbling reminder of the city's storied and elegant past by restoring old lines and seeking to build new ones.

In January, a mile-long streetcar line connecting the tourist area of the French Quarter to the city's Amtrak terminal is scheduled to open, becoming the fourth streetcar corridor in the city. Two more are proposed, the first of those anticipated to break ground in early 2014.

For a city where daily life was changed by the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, the new streetcars are a way to connect to history.

The more than 150-year-old line that sails down St. Charles Avenue is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world, according to the city. Revitalizing the New Orleans streetcar system has been a slow, arduous process. The city's two other existing lines were built in 1988 and 2004.

"New Orleans has not had an incredibly extensive network of streetcars for decades," said Rachel Heiligman, executive director of Ride New Orleans, an advocacy organization that has been pushing for more streetcars in the city.

"This is the first time in almost a decade we've seen an investment in public transit, so it's a very exciting time for New Orleans," she said.

As cities across the country explore ways to break gridlock or rejuvenate deadened commercial corridors, streetcars have become an attractive alternative to buses or subways for their affordability to build and maintain.

In 2013, inaugural streetcar lines are scheduled to launch in Atlanta; Dallas; Salt Lake City; Tucson, Arizona; and Washington, D.C. Cities considering or planning streetcar lines include Cincinnati; El Paso, Texas; Honolulu; Kansas City, Missouri; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; and Sacramento, California, according to the American Public Transit Association (APTA).

Streetcars already operate in cities including: Boston; Denver; Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; Tampa, Florida; San Francisco; and Savannah, Georgia.

Besides their charm, streetcars are being embraced because of the availability since 2009 of grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation meant for long-term projects.

The funds helped make streetcars "a growing movement," said Mantill Williams, a spokesman for APTA, a research group in Washington.

"For cities that had plans for streetcars on the books for years, this helped lead it to fruition," Williams said.

New Orleans received a $45 million grant for its new line and is seeking a second grant to build another line, which would cost $98 million. The city sold $75 million in sales tax revenue bonds to pay for a third new line.

The majority of these lines will run along historic streetcar routes that were uprooted in the 1960s, leaving only the St. Charles Avenue line in place by 1973, the year it was awarded a listing on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.

Williams said cities with streetcars are finding that they help strengthen property values and spur economic development.

"What it shows to your potential business customers is there is a sense of permanency there," he said.

For the line set to open next year, that is already happening: A $90 million apartment and retail complex that received city approval in late August and is expected to be built along the streetcar line in the next two years.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Greg McCune and Will Dunham)

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