Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's administration has signified interest in supporting the proposed tram to link downtown with LSU, with the new mayor saying she hopes the potential success in securing money for the tram could lead to more federal dollars for transit projects elsewhere in the parish.
Broome said on the campaign trail that she supported a variety of transit options to answer Baton Rouge's traffic woes, but she did not take an outright position as a cheerleader or detractor for the tram proposal that was a pet project for her predecessor.
Her administration is now asking the Metro Council to authorize $500,000 for HNTB Corporation to continue planning for the tram before submitting an application in September for federal money to help pay for the $170 million streetcar. The project has split lawmakers over whether to support investing so much money into one part of the city. Some argue it is a smart move, while others in north Baton Rouge and southeast Baton Rouge have complained that there is insufficient investment in transit in their neighborhoods.
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Broome echoed the concerns about north Baton Rouge while campaigning to become mayor-president. She said she now sees the tram as a potential door opener for the city with the Federal Transit Administration. The hope is that if Baton Rouge is successful the federal agency will look more kindly upon future transportation projects, and Broome said she has asked HNTB to consider the tram as one piece of a bigger puzzle that includes north Baton Rouge.
"I have told them the only way I could continue to be supportive of it is that they have to show me a holistic approach for our parish's transportation and mobility," Broome said of HNTB.
While HNTB has an agreement with the city-parish to do project planning for the tram, the Metro Council has to separately authorize a contract for each phase of it. The $500,000 they will be asked to authorize later this month is only related to the tram, but Broome could go to the Metro Council in another phase and ask for additional funding to allow the company to come up with infrastructure projects for other parts of the parish.
Bryan Jones, deputy office leader of HNTB’s Gulf Coast District, confirmed that his company has committed to help Broome target other transportation infrastructure projects.
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"The tram project really has the potential to be the backbone of a multi phase transit system that the city-parish advances," Jones said. "Once it's constructed and operational, I will bet you the discussion will quickly evolve into what's next after the tram."
The tram would run along Nicholson Drive and give people a direct route from Tiger Stadium to the State Capitol, with stops along the way in between. Planners have not yet determined how much it would cost to ride. The tram would capitalize on early risers going to work and school on weekdays, starting service at 6 a.m. then and at 9 a.m. on weekends. It would also try to service those have late-night activities, running until midnight from Thursday to Saturday and until 10 p.m. from Sunday to Wednesday.
The Nicholson corridor is ideal for a streetcar, unlike most other roads in Baton Rouge, Jones said. He pointed out that the tram's proposed path is bookended by LSU and downtown, and construction has recently boomed within that 3 mile stretch.
He, too, sees the application for $84 million in federal funding for the tram — which would be 49 percent of the project's overall cost — as a critical test for Baton Rouge. Jones said the FTA needs to see that Baton Rouge is capable of producing a successful transit project with federal funding in order for the agency to have growing confidence in the city.
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The federal Small Starts grant for the tram also has a cloudy future. President Donald Trump's proposed budget calls for a nearly 13 percent decrease in the Department of Transportation's budget. If those reductions were to be embraced by the U.S. Congress, cuts would hit the FTA'S capital investment program that funds the Small Starts grants.
"In conversations we're having with the FTA, they say everyone is being encouraged to continue projects and to not stall on project planning," Jones said. "If you stall on project planning, projects and organizations that did not stop planning will move ahead in the line."
The $500,000 that the Metro Council would authorize for HNTB would pay for several components of the tram's planning. One part would include ridership surveys that determine what ridership already looks like on LSU's Tiger Trails buses, Capital Area Transit System buses and other transit options in the area where the streetcar would go.
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Other parts of the contract include performing a topographic survey to determine the tram's alignment, creating an economic development district around the tram's route that would help pay for it and working on the project's design.
The Metro Council was initially set to vote on the contract on April 12, but a walkout by Democratic members after a contentious debate over the Council on Aging forced the contract discussion to be pushed back to later this month. Jones said the delay will tighten the timeline for the ridership survey, which needs to happen before students leave LSU for summer break.