Rampart Streetcar Line Reopening Brings Relief

NEW ORLEANS (Verite) — On a warm Wednesday evening last week, Andy Overslaugh was working behind the bar at the Voodoo Lounge when he heard a familiar — but long-missed — sound coming from the street. As he served a cooling blend of vodka and grapefruit juice to bar patrons, someone passed a plump, cherub-faced baby across the bar for him to hold. And then there it was: the jingle and chug of the Rampart streetcar, which recently reopened after being shut down for nearly five years. 

“Oh wait a minute! I ain’t heard that in five years,” Overslaugh said, still holding the baby. “That’s been the biggest just subtle joy of having it back is the sound. I love hearing it go by.” 

The October 2019 Hard Rock hotel collapse damaged infrastructure along the 1.6 mile route — which runs from Rampart Street at Canal Street to St. Claude Avenue at Elysian Fields Avenue —  leaving the line out of service just three years after it first began running. 

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Repeated delays kept the route from reopening for several years, but on May 19 the red and yellow streetcar began to run again, to the delight of businesses and residents along the corridor. 

Overslaugh has worked at the bar for a decade, so he watched from behind the bar as the line was built, which brought its own headaches — less foot traffic, more noise and flying dust and dirt from the work.  

“It was a dirt road out here,” he said. “Every day you would have to wipe the bottles down because it was just gravel.” 

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Construction on the line began in late 2014. The project cost $41.5 million and was hailed by city officials as a major catalyst for new investment along the corridor. But the line has either been under construction or closed for seven of the 10 following years.

Other businesses along Rampart Street struggled to stay afloat during construction. Rampart Street resident and tour guide Evian Hardester said the hot dog restaurant they worked at during the time, Dreamy Weenies, closed in part because of the losses it took during the lengthy construction. 

“The construction was so loud and they weren’t getting the same kind of foot traffic that they normally did,” Hardester said. “They never got above water after that.” 

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The relief was short-lived. On Oct. 12, 2019, portions of the upper floors of the Hard Rock — which was under construction at the corner of Canal Street and North Rampart Street — collapsed, killing three workers at the site. The collapse also damaged several poles and wiring along the three-year-old streetcar line. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority initially estimated that repairs would take about two years, but that timeline was repeatedly pushed back in part due to delays in stabilizing and clearing the damaged hotel.
Ultimately, the line didn’t reopen until last month, more than four-and-a-half years after it shut down.
“The Hard Rock [collapse] hit closer to home for us than the rest of the city,” Overslaugh said, speaking of businesses and residents along Rampart Street. “Then we had the absence of the streetcar to remind us of the tragedy for so long.” 

Returning the streetcar to service has cost the RTA $2.3 million, according to officials. The RTA hopes to recover those funds in a potential settlement with the Hard Rock developers. 

The streetcar’s return has brought some surprising changes to North Rampart Street. Hardester said the streetcar has had a calming effect on traffic along the corridor. 

“Crossing Rampart is usually a nightmare, [but] I have noticed an increase in people stopping for pedestrians because the streetcar was stopping,” they said. 

Businesses on the strip that have opened since the streetcar was shut down hope to get more eyes on their storefronts from passengers. Melissa Odum opened skincare boutique and spa Queendom Aesthetics on Rampart Street near Governor Nicholls Street one week before the streetcar reopened. 

“I didn’t know the streetcar came way back here,” Odum said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to benefit from the traffic.” 

Near the end of the line on St. Claude Avenue, sexual wellness shop Dynamo opened shortly after the streetcar was first constructed. Having weathered the Hard Rock collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic and the lengthy streetcar shutdown, owner Hope Kodman Vonstares said the optimism she felt years ago riding along the streetcar and gazing at her store has returned. 

“I’m hopeful that with it being back we’ll get folks coming out this way,” Kodman Vonstarnes said. “Anything that gets more eyes on St. Claude is fine with me.”

By Bobbi-Jeanne Misick

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