By BECKY BOHRER
The Associated Press
Saturday, November 10, 2007; 9:36 PM
NEW ORLEANS -- Amid a Carnival-like atmosphere, streetcars began rolling past the historic mansions of this city's Garden District Saturday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina halted the St. Charles Avenue line more than two years ago.
While only about half of the line is reopened, many see the return of the 1920s-era green cars as a sign of progress in the city's recovery and a morale booster.
"It's like having another piece of the puzzle, another piece of the city" back, said Melisa Rey, who rode on the first of a string of cars with her husband, Tom, and 10-month-old daughter, Jeanne-Marie. "It's so nice to finally have some good publicity," Tom Rey added.
Six of the 13 miles the cars once ran are now open on the St. Charles line, and officials hope to restore full service through by spring.
It's been slow going in large part due to the cost and scope of the storm's damage to the line's power system, due for an upgrade before the August 2005 storm. Mark Major, general manager of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, praised federal highway officials for providing $14 million that he said was key to the resumption of the service.
Politicians and local officials were on hand, as they were in December when an initial loop of about 1.2 miles opened. But the feel was different, more festive.
On Saturday, a marching band led the streetcars down to the Lee Circle loop. Revelers dotted the oak-lined avenue _ some waving or holding up drinks, others, carrying signs that read "No More Bus" or "Welcome Back," or offering riders Mardi Gras beads or high-fives.
Councilwoman Stacy Head called the streetcars part of the city's identity _ "everything from the noise, the clanging down the avenue to the lights at night." The St. Charles line was the oldest continuously operating line in the world before Katrina shut it down in August 2005. It began operation in September 1835.
"It's what makes New Orleans feel like home," she said. "It's as important as red beans and rice and Mardi Gras, and it's hard to explain to people who aren't part of this city how important this is as an icon and a real-life form of transportation."
Karen Miller grew up riding the streetcar and took it to work before Katrina. It's not just for tourists, and it's far more fun than riding a bus _ especially when the windows are down, she said. A warm breeze blew through the car in which she was riding.
Transit officials expect to run about five cars on the St. Charles line. The fare is $1.25 beginning Sunday; people got to take rides for free Saturday afternoon. Four or five streetcars also are running on the Canal Street line and two are available along the riverfront.