It’s not a streetcar, and it’s not a trolley.
Setting itself apart from the well-known tourist fixtures of New Orleans and San Francisco, the proposed Baton Rouge fixed-line rail traversing Nicholson Drive is envisioned as a sleek, modern tram connecting riders from downtown Baton Rouge to LSU that could be opened by 2021.
On Thursday, city-parish officials and consultants held their first public meeting to introduce future riders and affected home and business owners to some of the details of one of outgoing Mayor-President Kip Holden’s priority transit projects for East Baton rouge Parish. It’s the first look so far at potential routes and stops. However, other details, such as the total cost of the project and how it will be funded, remain murky.
“It’s the way you will move around Baton Rouge in the not-so-distant future,” Holden said to a packed conference room in the Baton Rouge River Center. “This is all part of Baton Rouge transportation catching up with Baton Rouge’s growth, which has been tremendous.”
The city-parish’s consultant for the project, HNTB, unveiled three potential routes, all beginning at Skip Bertman Drive at LSU and ending at the State Capitol Park downtown. The project envisions about 12 stops along the way. Downtown, the stops would be about two to three blocks apart, and along Nicholson Drive they would be spaced between a quarter- to a half-mile apart.
The total time to get from the first stop at LSU to the last stop downtown would be about 20 to 25 minutes stretching across about 3 miles.
Planners currently estimate wait times at stops of about 15 to 20 minutes. The seven-day-a-week service would require five cars, holding between 100 and 150 passengers each. But if the city-parish wants shorter wait times, more vehicles would be required.
The proposed cost of a ticket would be between $1 to $3, which could be used for a round trip or for a certain number of hours.
Much could change, as the project, which is in its infancy, moves forward.
An environmental study, required for federal grant money, will stretch from this month until August. Construction could take at least two years.
Ashley Booth, HNTB project manager, said it’s possible the project could cost more than $100 million.
For example, the Tucson, Arizona, tram finished in 2014 is a little more than 3 miles end to end, built at a cost of about $197 million, according to reports presented at Thursday’s public meeting. The project, which consultants say is one of the best regional comparisons for Baton Rouge based on size and population, received federal grants that Baton Rouge will also compete for. But Tucson locals still had to cover 38 percent of the costs.
As the planning continues, funding sources will be identified.
Booth said in other cities, tax-increment financing districts have been popular, which would collect taxes from surrounding businesses to pay down the costs of the infrastructure. It’s possible, but less likely, that the city-parish could use a public-private partnership, in which a company provides some of the infrastructure and recoups its profits from ridership fees. Booth said that arrangement is more popular for bigger cities.
Booth said it’s a misconception that trams and fixed-use community rails are mostly used by tourists. He said a recent poll in Portland, Oregon, which has had a rail since 2001, found that only 20 percent of the riders were tourists. Portland’s tram has between 15,000 to 20,000 riders per day.
In Baton Rouge, a study found there are 10,500 residents, 33,000 employees and 30,000 LSU students within a quarter-mile of the proposed line.
It’s unclear who would run the system. Booth said the city-parish could oversee it, they could put the Capital Area Transit System in charge of it or it could be outsourced to a private company.
Nationwide, Booth said, fixed-route services are seeing a resurgence in urban communities that are finding ways to better connect to their downtowns. Twelve cities have such transit systems in operation or under construction, and at least 30 more cities are studying or actively working on developing a system.
Where they’ve been built, cities have seen significant corresponding private investment, spurring economic development in the areas.
He said the benefit of the fixed-route infrastructure, rather than a bus route that traverses the same corridor, is that it shows a commitment to businesses and developers that the route will be permanent.
“This investment isn’t going to pick up and move over to the next block,” Booth said.
Scott Moreau, an LSU employee who lives on Nicholson Drive, said he sees how university students without cars could use it to get downtown. He also said it could help LSU visitors who currently have to fight for limited parking on campus.
“I would use it, going downtown for events where I don’t have to park,” he said. “Live after Five, or whatever it may be.”
Darryl Gissel, a downtown resident and real estate broker, said he thinks it would be well used by downtown residents because many LSU employees and students live downtown.
“Whenever people ask about homes, they ask about what the proximity is to LSU,” he said.