Board a train in Baton Rouge and be in downtown New Orleans 90 minutes later.
It’s not a bad idea, said more than 75 percent of people in the corridor who participated in a recent quality of life survey taken by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
The idea of a passenger rail link between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has been around for about as long as there has been road construction on Interstate 10.
However, the idea has taken on added steam in recent months, though critics say rail is too costly to build and maintain.
A passenger rail line is part of the regional ingredient of an overall transportation plan being brought forward by Future BR, the city’s update of its comprehensive development plan that will be presented later this year to city officials for approval.
Already, passage of the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact in the 2010 Louisiana Legislative session creates a mechanism where two or more parishes or municipalities can form a quasi-government organization to provide for passenger rail transportation.
The New Orleans city council passed a resolution to enter into the compact agreement, with the anticipation that the Baton Rouge Metro Council will pass a similar resolution, said state Rep. Michael Jackson, No Party-Baton Rouge, a lead sponsor of the enabling legislation.
“We’re waiting on Baton Rouge to do its part,” Jackson said recently.
An intrastate rail compact is only part of the comprehensive foundation needed for a regional rail service, say planners. When metro areas begin to view themselves as a single regional unit — known in planning parlance as a “super region” — they can better harness the federal transportation dollars needed for large-scale infrastructure projects, said Rachel DiResto, executive vice president at the Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge.
“I would also argue that the economic futures of Baton Rouge and New Orleans regions are intertwined, which requires a large-scale super-regional approach to public and private, and transportation investments,” she added.
According to an April policy brief published by Connect, a super region made up of Baton Rouge and New Orleans — and the places in between — should include three primary ingredients: improved connections between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, improved transit within parishes and affordable, walkable transit-oriented communities. The region would be comprised of East Baton Rouge, Ascension, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, Jefferson and Orleans parishes, according to the Connect report.
The passenger rail concept being proposed is a $450 million project that would use existing tracks.
The Future BR plan envisions a rail link from Midcity in Baton Rouge to the existing Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, with four stops between the two cities: south Baton Rouge, Gonzales, LaPlace and Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
Proponents of the project point to increasing traffic congestion, high gasoline prices and a desire for stronger business and commercial ties to New Orleans as reasons to pursue the plan.
“I think people would choose to make many different types of trips using rail — for shopping, work, recreation — as opposed to sitting in traffic congestion, if the system provided convenience and seamless integration with other modes of transit to get around once you get there,” said DiResto.
Connect, the Baton Rouge and New Orleans rail and land planning project organized by the CPEX, cites 2009 U.S. Census data showing more than 22,500 residents in Jefferson and Orleans parishes who work in Baton Rouge. It shows more than 9,600 Baton Rouge residents make the trip to New Orleans for work-related reasons.
“We are supportive of the concept of rail,” said Meg Mahoney, senior vice president of product development at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
“The rail has been one of those items that BRAC has looked at, been supportive of. Looking at federal policy, we see investments in rail at levels we haven’t seen for the past 30 years or so,” Mahoney said. “There are just new dollars and a new emphasis on rail and other types of mass transit.”
In 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration said it would not pursue $300 million in federal funds to help launch passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Jindal’s administration has said the project would be too costly to build and maintain.
Loren Scott, a retired LSU economist and close follower of the Louisiana economy for the past 40 years, agrees with that assessment. Even though the Baton Rouge and New Orleans metro regions account for 44 percent of the state’s population, the critical mass to make rail travel sustainable has not yet been reached, he said.
“The number of people estimated to ride this train is a very small number, certainly compared to what travels the road,” Scott said. “And I think even the people who did the study would say you’re not taking enough people off the interstate to reduce congestion all that much.”
A 2010 study by transportation engineering firm Burke-Kleinpeter Inc. estimated ridership at 39,000 passengers a month in the first year (2013). By 2038 ridership is expected to be 135,000 boardings per month. Initially, four roundtrips per day are proposed, with trains traveling at 79 mph. Eventually, the service would increase to six roundtrips a day, with trains traveling at 90 mph, according to the Burk-Kleinpeter study.
The study also noted that with four daily trips, the train would operate at an annual deficit of $14.8 million, with that amount growing to $18.3 million in 2018 when the train increases service.
“And because it is a money-loser — and a significant money-loser — you’re asking people from all over the state to subsidize a system between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and I just don’t think that it will fly,” Scott said.
Still, business leaders say transportation and its many snags in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans regions is often a top concern among companies interested in expanding or relocating to the state.
“Transportation has been, and continues to be, a major issue for our members and investors,” the chamber’s Mahoney said. “Whether it’s your personal frustration with sitting in traffic or you have a company with a large fleet and traffic leads to excess gas prices or … just quality of life, it constantly comes up. So transportation has been a focus of BRAC’s work the last several years and continues to be. And we look at all aspects of that.”
“I think that over time alternative modes of transportation will continue to be talked about, in light of the fact that our resources supporting public transportation are constantly being reduced,” Jackson said.