Baton Rouge and New Orleans are a classic case of frenemies, which is to say that they have a surface level friendship and a deep-seated rivalry.
The two cities are 80 miles away, but sometimes feel worlds apart. New Orleans, a liberal-leaning city, is the cultural gem of Louisiana known for some of the best food, music and art in the country. Baton Rouge, a more socially conservative place, is the seat of state government. Many residents take pride in what they see as a more business-oriented and family-friendly atmosphere.
Whatever the cultural differences, business leaders, led by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc., want to create more of a shared identity, at least economically. As they see it, if Louisiana’s two economic powerhouses joined forces in a kind of super region, it would both make them more competitive and more of a political force.
“When Houston has 50 percent more people than the entire state of Louisiana, clearly we have to celebrate our diversity as a strength,” said Michael Hecht, president of GNO Inc. “For us to try to compete against Houston with a labor shed of just one parish or even just one region is handicapping ourselves unnecessarily.”
The goal is to be considered a single metropolitan statistical area, which is the way a region is identified by the U.S. census. Economic development leaders call it a key tactic for their work in recruiting businesses. It’s the reason people refer to the cities of Dallas-Fort Worth as a single entity, and why Minneapolis and St. Paul are the “Twin Cities.”
The idea is simply that there is strength in numbers.
The city of Houston, for example, has an actual population of about 2.2 million. But the Greater Houston Metro area, which includes many of the surrounding counties and bedroom communities, is about 5.6 million people.
If Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the Lafayette regions combined as a super region, it would reflect 2.6 million people, more than half of the population of the state. The region could collectively boast LSU, the University of New Orleans, Tulane, Southern University, Loyola and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, two medical schools, four law schools and three airports, including an international airport.
But being considered a single MSA is more than just playing nice. The areas need to be actually intertwined, connected by at least 25 percent of commuters.
Only about 11 percent of residents commute back and forth daily between the Greater New Orleans and Baton Rouge regions, Hecht said.
“We don’t have quite the ... flow back and forth to technically make us qualify,” he said. “At the same time, that’s one of the reasons we want to get the rail built. It’s a super regional priority.”
Passenger rail hopes
For the past few years, Baton Rouge and New Orleans leaders have worked on plans for a 79-mph passenger train linking the two regions.
The train would operate on the existing infrastructure in place by Kansas City Southern and Canadian National along the 80-mile corridor. A trip from outside downtown Baton Rouge near the old Entergy property on Government Street to downtown New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal near the Superdome would take one hour and 35 minutes with seven total stops including Gonzales, LaPlace, the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner and Zephyr Field in Jefferson Parish.
The capital costs for reinforcing the existing rail and building out the train stations along the route are estimated to total about $262 million, according to a 2014 study by HNTB Corp. commissioned by the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact and other organizations.
Initial hopes for the passenger rail idea were dashed in 2009, when Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration refused to pursue federal stimulus money to pay for construction, citing concerns about getting stuck with annual operating expenses. But proponents are still believers in the concept, saying federal financing can be sought after Jindal leaves office this year.
The rail would generate an estimated 210,000 rides in the first year, according to the study. Fares could be as low as $10 .
“The demand is there,” said Adam Knapp, BRAC president and CEO. He noted that the LA Swift, a low-cost bus service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that started after Hurricane Katrina and ended service in 2013, was transporting 10,000 riders per month. “We found in our surveys that a lot of seniors were using it for medical care, and a lot of business people were using it to get to and from work.”
Kristin Gisleson Palmer, a former New Orleans councilwoman who is chairing the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact, said there are significant economic and safety benefits to linking the two regions.
Palmer was part of a team that helped evacuate New Orleans residents during Hurricane Gustav on trains and buses.
“Evacuating on trains was so much easier. It was easier to keep families intact,” she said. “And a lot of people didn’t want to get on buses because of what had happened before (during Katrina) when they didn’t know where they were going to go or where they would wind up.”
Some Baton Rouge leaders have taken issue with the fact that the rail doesn’t have a planned stop at the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport.
Knapp said the Baton Rouge airport simply cannot compete with the New Orleans regional airport because it offers more destinations at cheaper price points.
“I don’t think (the rail) exacerbates the problem, because it’s already pretty dramatic,” Knapp said.
Just this past week, a group of about 150 Baton Rouge and New Orleans leaders took a trip to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, to see how the two desert cities have embraced regionalism to improve their own economic and political leverage.
Several leaders on the trip remarked that the collaborative trip, the second the chambers held together, was a significant step forward for the regions who have for years worked in isolation, rather than in cooperation.
Hecht, who is a cousin by marriage to his Baton Rouge counterpart, Knapp, said the sometimes icy attitudes between the two cities are rooted in history, with the differences dating back to the colonial era.
Abhay Patel, a vice president with the New Orleans Business Alliance, said super regions are typically united by industry, which is why he thinks New Orleans and Baton Rouge have been able to avoid coming together before now.
“If you look at the two biggest industries we have as a state, it’s oil and gas,” he said, noting that much oil exploration is off the coast, while natural gas is drilled for in Northwest Louisiana. “The biggest industry that has organized communities has been on the state’s peripheral.”
But he said the rise of petrochemical investment from Baton Rouge to New Orleans will organically unite the interests of the super region.
“When you’re talking about creating a super region, we’re going to have one because real estate will dictate that it happens and where people go will dictate that it happens,” Patel said.
Phoenix and Tucson are considered a single Metropolitan Statistical Area, despite the fact that they are farther apart than the two Louisiana cities. Phoenix and Tucson are separated by about 110 miles of desolate land. The two areas are similarly connected by an Interstate 10 corridor, with plans for a proposed $10 billion rail to serve the areas and provide more transportation options.
Knapp said the barriers broke down in the business community after Hurricane Katrina displaced so many New Orleans offices to Baton Rouge.
Now, the two regional chambers of commerce regularly collaborate to back legislative issues, because as a combined force they can say they represent half of the state population.
Together, the two chambers backed the 2010 GRAD Act, which gave schools more tuition flexibility in exchange for performance goals. Hecht said they are also working on a set of priorities for the next governor and will co-support bills that reform TOPS, a state merit-based college scholarship program.
While the business community is driving the collaborative process, the mayors from the respective cities also say they have a good working relationship.
“Mitch is one of my close friends, and we look out for each other,” said Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has not attended either of the Super Region Canvas trips on which leaders from the two metro areas were invited. He declined to be interviewed for this story but said in a statement he supports the two areas coming together to “strengthen its presence on the global stage.”
“We are making great progress, but we still have work to do,” he said in a statement. “Mayor Holden and I have a strong, working relationship and great partners on a number of key issues important to the future of our region, especially in advocating for high-speed rail that would connect our two communities, boost commerce and create jobs.”