The federal government is making available $280 million for street cars and other public transportation projects aimed at creating jobs and more walkable, environmentally-friendly communities.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the announcement Tuesday at a streetcar barn in New Orleans. The city, which has been trying to overhaul its public transit system since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was LaHood's first stop on a listening tour on federal transportation policy.
The last transportation spending bill expired in September. While President Barack Obama's administration has sought a reprieve into 2011, given the federal stimulus package that passed earlier this year and was aimed largely at public works projects, Congress hasn't agreed to an extension past mid-December.
LaHood said there's a "pent up demand" for infrastructure work around the country but that it would cost up to $500 billion to do all of it. He said the administration supports a "robust" transportation bill but wants to see projects that encourage innovation, reduce carbon emissions and help to improve quality of life in communities, urban and rural. The new round of grants, expected to be awarded on a competitive basis next year, is in line with those priorities.
New Orleans hopes to make a case for grants and other federal dollars. Mayor Ray Nagin called public transportation _ from biodiesel buses being put into service to hoped-for streetcar line expansions and the addition of bike paths to help spark neighborhood-level revitalization _ important to the city's overall recovery efforts.
While the streetcar service is back, the Regional Transit Authority says ridership, overall, is still only about one-third of the 33 million annual riders before Katrina. The city is still rebuilding its tourism-based economy. The agency's bus fleet, largely wiped out by flood waters, is a fraction of the size it once was and there are fewer people living in New Orleans.
Transit Authority Chief Executive Justin Augustine acknowledged the need for innovation in seeking to attract more riders.
"Public transportation represents regional economic vitality when done correctly," he said.
The RTA has eyed more than $100 million for streetcar expansion, and Nagin said he believes the city is well-positioned to secure a "significant" level of funding for transportation projects in early 2010.