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Once Neglected, New Orleans Trolleys Becomes Wave of the Future

April 4, 1992

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ They rattled their way into literature, history - and near oblivion. Now the streetcars that clanged over New Orleans’ streets for 157 years are on a comeback track.

Tourists and commuters alike share the old, green cars with handmade mahogany seats, oak floors and brass fittings, and other cities have copied their design.

For years, the city had just one streetcar line along St. Charles Avenue, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Then, a line along the Mississippi River at the French Quarter was added a few years ago.

The city now plans to extend that line and is considering building up to 100 miles of new routes, including one on Canal Street, the main business strip, and one to the airport.

″For people in New Orleans who battled to preserve the streetcar 30 years ago, this is really something,″ said Jim Amdal, president of the Riverfront Transit Coalition Group.

Streetcars have been a part of the city since 1835, when double-decker cars were drawn by two horses. Tennessee Williams named his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama ″A Streetcar Named Desire″ after the trolley that ran down Desire Street.

But by 1964, all but the St. Charles line had been sacrificed to progress. Hundreds of miles of streets were paved over for buses.

″Certainly, buses were considered more modern, just like houses with 8- foot ceilings were more modern than houses with 12-foot ceilings,″ said Jack Steward, president of Bring Our Streetcars Home.

At the time, transit officials said the biggest problem was repairing or replacing the old cars, which were made between 1922 and 1924.

But tourists loved them, fuel costs began to rise and officials - spurred by the federal Clean Air Act - became concerned about reducing bus exhaust.

In November 1990, after a two-year battle with preservationists, the Regional Transit Authority began to rebuild the aging streetcars, adding modern safety features such as heavier steel and shatterproof glass.

″The car is still authentic in its looks and details,″ said authority spokeswoman Valerie Robinson. ″They’re still the old cars but ready for another 70 years or so.″

Modern streetcar-like vehicles are now widely used on light rail lines, which have been built in cities from Buffalo to San Diego. But New Orleans plans to stick with the old cars on all its new lines.

″I noticed that the RTA’s annual report is titled, ’Building the future on the past,‴ Steward said. ″I guess everyone is seeing a future for the old cars.″

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