The heavy lifting needed to get large-scale regional transportation projects off the ground — like a passenger rail link between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — will require a substantial level of local funding and leadership, a senior state transportation official told a gathering of regional planning and transportation advocates Thursday.
“We are not going to get involved in a service like that, that requires any kind of a subsidy from the state, any time soon,” said Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development during an interview Thursday at a transportation policy forum organized by Connect.
The local organization works to bring new resources and new research to the effort of building “super-regional” transportation, housing and economic policy in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge metro areas.
“I mean, our budget at the state level is not good,” Kalivoda added. “We’re cutting everything, including things that’s essential. We’re not about to embark on some new endeavor that requires more state funding and further strains the state budget.”
Kalivoda’s comments were not entirely surprising. Two years ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration chose to not pursue $300 million in competitive federal stimulus funds to help pay for a high-seed rail project. A February 2010 cost analysis conducted for the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission by Burk-Kleinpeter Inc. and HDR Engineering estimated the project cost to be about $448 million.
Kalivoda noted a shift in philosophy at the state level to have local cities and parishes play a larger role in planning and paying for costly infrastructure transportation projects.
“We are not going to impose our vision on the state as a whole,” Kalivoda said. “We’ll take more of a support role.”
The concept of regional cooperation to build consensus in terms of drafting not only transportation policy, but development policy, was a frequent refrain echoed by many of the speakers.
“Stop thinking independently. Start thinking together,” Justin Augustine, CEO of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, told the group, made up of about 175 policymakers and residents mostly from around Baton Rouge.
Transit systems are hugely expensive to build and operate. And transit officials agree that securing federal transit funding is generally a highly competitive process, which is why projects that are part of a regional concept will stand a better chance at funding.
“There is an opportunity when you have a strong regional system — and I mean a strong system — we can compete with New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles,” Augustine said.
Building a strong local transit system is an essential first step when thinking about a regional passenger rail connection between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, say the experts. For its part, New Orleans has a good system that’s getting better. That city plans to break ground in August on a new 1.2-mile streetcar line along Loyola Avenue that would connect with the Union Passenger Terminal, which serves as the hub for Greyhound buses and three Amtrak lines.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this has been the most effective, and fastest project in the entire nation,” Augustine said. Another streetcar project is planned along Rampart Street connecting neighborhoods to downtown. The city plans to build 2.5 miles of new streetcar lines by 2014.
That’s markedly different from Baton Rouge where the Capital Area Transit System struggles to maintain the service it has. A recent $500,000 grant from the East Baton Rouge Mortgage Finance Authority will keep CATS operating through the end of the year, but the future still seems grim unless Baton Rouge eventually approves a tax to give the bus system some form of dedicated funding.
A lackluster public transit system in Baton Rouge does not help the larger regional effort for passenger rail, transit experts say.
“What happens when I take a train to Baton Rouge? What am I going to do — just stand on the platform and wait for a taxi to come by,” Augustine remarked.
The transportation problems of highway congestion or access to public transit in Baton Rouge and New Orleans are not unique, say transit officials. And solving them is neither easy nor impossible.
“If New Orleans and Baton Rouge were to get this right, you have the chance to be a shining star in the South,” said John Robert Smith, a former four-term mayor in Meridian, Miss., and the president and CEO of Reconnecting America, a Washington, D.C., organization that works to grow transit opportunities at the community level. “But you’ve got to act. You can’t just meet. You can’t just talk.”