For the first time in almost half a century, the city that inspired "A Streetcar Named Desire" once again desires streetcars.
New Orleans, home of the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world, had done away with everything but the St. Charles line through the historic Garden District. Now that is changing. A third streetcar line just reopened and perhaps a dozen others -- including the old Desire Street line -- are on the planning board.
"In New Orleans streetcars have been part of our tradition," said Pat Judge, spokesman for the Regional Transit Authority. "Tourists like them, but our residents like riding them as well."
And New Orleans is not alone if its renewed fondness for the form of transportation once thought of as obsolete.
"They're very much in fashion again," said Jim Graebner, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association Heritage Trolley Task Force in Washington. He estimates at least 21 cities are adding or restoring trolley lines.
The renaissance of downtown areas as people move back from the suburbs, the charm of the old cars, their cleaner operation and improved durability all contribute to their popularity.
Last year, Tacoma, Wash., opened a 1.6-mile streetcar line -- running from the Tacoma Dome Station through the heart of downtown. The $80.4 million line is the first streetcar to run in Tacoma since 1938.
"We really are going back to the future," Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma said when it opened.
Memphis opened a two-mile, $56-million streetcar line and plans to make it the starting point of a nine-mile, $400 million extension that will run to the Memphis International Airport. North Little Rock, Ark., has laid tracks and will have a streetcar running soon.
From Portland, Ore., to Pittsburgh, Buffalo to Sacramento, cities have begun laying tracks and returning to streetcars, and others are looking into the possibility.
It is a big change from the thinking that all but killed the form of transportation. In New Orleans, which once had 225 miles of streetcar lines, the old cars began disappearing in the 1930s.
"You always hear that it was a plot by General Motors, a tire company and Esso Oil," said Michael Mizell-Nelson, who studied streetcars for his doctorate and is writing a book on them. "It wasn't. It was just part of the times."
Government funding policies and paving of city streets had a big influence on dropping the rail lines. So did the thinking of the times.
"At the time, buses were considered the modern way to travel," said Jimmy Fitzmorris, who was one of six city council members who voted to get rid of the last of New Orleans' streetcars. "They were air conditioned, they could pull up to the curb, they were economical."
But over the years, ridership on the St. Charles line remained strong and so did nostalgia for the streetcar.
In 1988, New Orleans opened a streetcar line that runs along the Mississippi River, mostly transporting tourists between the French Quarter and the convention center. The federal government kicked in 80 percent of the construction cost.
It proved a success and led to the rebuilding of the Canal Street line. The $160 million line, also with 80 percent paid from federal funds, attracted 125,000 riders the first week it was back in service in April.
"The cars are beautiful," Judge said. "They are a big improvement over the buses."
The New Orleans transit workers had experience in maintaining the St. Charles cars and made parts of the new Riverfront cars, so moving on to complete manufacturing was a natural step.
A company in Brookville, Pa., made the wheels, axles and truck assemblies, which hold the wheels, brakes and motor. The rest of the elements were manufactured in Louisiana and assembled by New Orleans workers.
The 1920s cars that clatter along St. Charles Avenue are not air conditioned, the windows open to allow a breeze, the brakes squeal and the wheels rattle nosily on the tracks.
The new cars are air conditioned, much quieter, with better suspension and a smoother ride. They are also handicapped accessible.
"They look almost the same as the old ones," said Elmer von Dullen, who oversaw the construction. "But they are a lot more comfortable and lower maintenance."
Another advantage cities restoring streetcar lines are finding is that ridership increases with them.
"People don't like riding buses," Graebner said. "But streetcars draw riders. They have a charisma, people like them."
The lines have also increased nearby values of nearby properties, Judge said.
"It's a dream that some of us never gave up on," said Rita Legrand, president of Streetcars Desired Inc., which worked to prevent the destruction of the city's streetcar lines. "I'm happy to see others are starting to think the same way."