Holden to ask Metro Council for $10 million bond to kick-start $170 million downtown tram proposal _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Notes left on a large scale map showing the tram's proposed route showcase concerns, Tuesday, June 21, 2016, during a meeting to showcase the proposed TramLinkBR that would connect LSU with downtown Baton Rouge.

The proposed tram that would link downtown Baton Rouge and LSU has taken another step closer to reality after the Federal Transit Administration issued a report Friday that the project would have no significant environmental impact on the 3-mile corridor.

Ashley Booth, an associate vice president with HNTB, the consulting team working with city-parish leaders to develop the modern streetcar line, told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge Wednesday that the FTA issued the assessment after five months of study.

“I’ve worked on a number of these throughout the country and I’ve never seen a report issued in five months,” Booth said. “Most of the time, they take a year.”

Booth said now that the city-parish has the report that no significant environmental impact will result from the streetcar line, the proposed $170 million project can move forward into the project development and design phase.

“We’re through the crawling phase and now we’re finally in the walking phase,” he said. Plans are to start working on the design phase in early 2017. That will go on until 2018, which is when Booth and city-parish leaders hope construction can begin on the tram.

Construction will take about two years and it will take several months of testing to bring the streetcars into service. The goal is to have the line up and running by mid-2021.

The next step is for the city-parish to apply for grant funding from the FTA to help cover some of the construction costs. It’s estimated that federal dollars will cover about $67.5 million of the project costs.

Booth said there’s a competitive process for the grants, and an application to receive funding this year must be submitted by Sept. 2.

Baton Rouge is seen as having a leg up in getting federal money for a streetcar line because officials with the FTA see it as a “showcase project” that could be a template for transit projects in mid-sized cities.

LSU and downtown are active economic hubs. There’s also private and public development happening along Nicholson Drive, such as the Water Campus, which will be an international hub for coastal research, and the River House mixed-use development.

“It’s a great project,” Booth said. “The critical elements of a successful system are there and the economic synergies are very strong.”

Streetcar lines have exploded in popularity in recent years, as they have become easy, environmentally friendly ways to travel around a city. In the past decade, 10 cities have opened streetcar lines, including Dallas, Kansas City, Missouri; and Tucson, Arizona. Another four or five lines are under construction, in places such as Detroit, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. And another 30 cities are looking at modern systems, Booth said. “This isn’t a flash in the pan,” he said.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.