- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A move to expand New Orleans’ world-famous streetcar system has hit a potential hurdle: A lawsuit seeking to stop work on the city’s newest streetcar, one slated to head into the old French neighborhoods.

The suit was filed Monday in federal court by a group of streetcar enthusiasts, residents and members of American-Indian tribes. It stems from a dispute over the decision to place new streetcar tracks in roadways instead of using the old “neutral grounds,” the grassy avenue medians where the city’s once-ubiquitous trolley fleet ran before they were removed by mid-20th century.

The new line is slated to run from Canal Street, the boulevard separating the French Quarter from the American sector in the 1800s, and finish at Elysian Fields Avenue. That same avenue was immortalized by Tennessee Williams and Vivien Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire” when Leigh’s character, Blanche DuBois, takes a streetcar to Elysian Fields to stay with her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski.

“This is not an anti-streetcar lawsuit,” said Jack Stewart, president of Bring Our Streetcars Home Inc., a group suing. “We just want the streetcar done right.”

The suit said the necessary environmental and historic preservation studies were not done on construction options and examining potential damage to historic structures. The plaintiffs want a federal judge to hear their complaints.

The suit was filed against the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Regional Transit Authority, Veolia Transportation Services Inc. and Transdev Services Inc.

Veolia, and its successor, Transdev, have run the city’s public transportation system since 2009. The company declined to comment Tuesday. Federal transportation officials did not immediately return a message.

The controversy over the streetcar expansions has been going on for years - with critics lambasting transportation officials for tailoring their plans to suit tourists while neglecting the needs of locals.

In 2011, RTA began construction of a downtown streetcar line along Loyola Avenue connecting the passenger train station, the Superdome and the French Quarter. Critics said it was foolish to place the new streetcars in roadways rather than use the neutral ground. The agency said it was more feasible to do it that way.

Critics also questioned building a streetcar line in an area with few residents. Ridership is low on the new line.

Similar complaints are being expressed about the city’s new $41.5 million streetcar line to run along the edge of the French Quarter, past the neighborhood of Treme and onto St. Claude Avenue to Elysian Fields - a total of 1.6 miles.

RTA said placing the streetcars in the neutral ground would require costly removal of utility lines. It also says the neutral ground is too narrow for two streetcar lines.

Stewart said the neutral ground could be expanded.

At one time, the city had 225 miles of streetcar lines. But only one streetcar line survived: The historic olive green trolleys along St. Charles Avenue in the city’s Uptown.

In 1988 and in 2004 new lines opened - one along the riverfront for tourists and another up Canal Street, a main artery. Not long before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, RTA announced an ambitious plan to bring back even more streetcars, including the one now under construction.

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