Passenger train service that was shut down after Hurricane Katrina is expected to return to the Gulf Coast with Baton Rouge now along the route.
Monday, the Southern Rail Commission distributed $2.5 million in federal funds to design, build and improve train stations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. A quarter-million went to Baton Rouge to develop plans for a train station at the old Entergy campus near the corner of Government and 14th streets.
The goal is to revive the passenger route between Orlando and New Orleans, which already has lines that run to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. There would be a separate spur for riders to commute between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
In August, a majority of the East Baton Rouge Metro Council agreed to invest $250,000 of local matching funds for the new station on Government Street. Whatever of the combined $500,000 is left after the station is designed can be put toward construction, said Gwen Hamilton, head of the Redevelopment Authority, which owns the old Entergy site.
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Between 1993 and 2005, Amtrak operated service between Los Angeles and Miami, with New Orleans serving as a major stop along the route. However, the line was plagued by delays and annual ridership dropped from a high of about 180,000 in 1994 to about 100,000 in 2004, according to a Southern Rail Commission report. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, Amtrak cut service on the route east of New Orleans.
Since then, Amtrak has addressed some of its internal issues, and because the new route wouldn't depend on trains coming from California and Texas, delays should be substantially mitigated, said Commission Chairman Greg White.
White said the train travel time on the route would be comparable to a car's drive time. A proposed timetable would see a train leaving New Orleans at 3:32 p.m. and arriving in Orlando in the eastern time zone at 11:30 the next morning.
Fares would be similar to those to Atlanta, the chairman said. Ticket prices vary widely based on amenities and restrictions, but a one-way ticket from New Orleans to Atlanta purchased a month in advance would currently cost $63, $79, $151 or $214.
Nevertheless, White said, the route would require a subsidy to operate, around the order of $9.5 million in its first year, though he is optimistic that advertising and sponsorship could drive the cost down, and that by the time the expense is spread across four states, no single entity would wind up paying too much.
The commuter train between Baton Rouge and New Orleans would cost about $10 per ticket one way, with a $6.8 million subsidy its first year.
Authorities are waiting for a January report by the Federal Railroad Administration to determine when the Gulf Coast line can begin, but White believes it's reasonable to expect the train to start operations in the next 18 to 24 months, as the railroads are already laid and just need to start taking passenger cars.
The timeline for the commuter rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is less clear. John Spain, a leader at the Commission and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, has said the first train could roll before Gov. John Bel Edwards's first term is up in 2020. A city-parish staffer told the Metro Council over the summer that it could take more than five years.
First, the city-parish will have to build the new station from the ground up. In addition to serving as a rail hub, authorities hope the new transit center would also provide stops for other forms of transportation, such as city buses or the proposed downtown-LSU tram. Hamilton hopes it could also catalyze commercial and office development in the area.
With the new grant money in hand, she expects to put the design project up for bid in January. Once contractors start sending in their plans, authorities will have a better idea how much the new station will cost, though the overall project, including improvements to bridges and crossings, has been estimated at slightly more than $260 million.