Despite opposition, New Orleans and Baton Rouge leaders continue to meet with the federal government to develop a passenger rail link between the two cities and allow workers easier access to the new and expanded plants along the Mississippi River.
“We don’t have a fast train between here and Baton Rouge and here and Lake Charles. So, it’s a long walk,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday at a program addressing energy issues in New Orleans sponsored by The Atlantic, a magazine founded in 1857.
The meeting included representatives of industry as well as other elected officials and scholars discussing the rapid expansion of the energy industry in south Louisiana.
“We need to have arteries of transportation, like the highways provided back in the 1950s,” Landrieu said. “The new iteration of that is high-speed rail. If you have the bodies here and you have the work in Lake Charles or Baton Rouge, why make it hard for people to get there?”
Similar ideas have been percolating for years, with much promise but without much advancement.
In October 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal chose not to pursue $300 million in federal stimulus funds to help pay for the project. Jindal said, at the time, the state could not afford the annual operating costs, which were estimated at $18 million for state taxpayers.
But in a prepared statement Wednesday evening, Jindal said: “We have not seen any proposal yet, but if a plan can be developed that makes financial sense for taxpayers, then we would be open to it.”
Promoters also are more optimistic this time around because industry officials want the expected flood of employees to get their new jobs and because the plans they’re looking at would lower projected costs significantly.
Landrieu said the next governor, who will be elected in 2015, will have to address worker accessibility and should be willing to accept federal money to help.
“It was a mistake to turn down the money, and I think whoever is in that office is going to be asked, ‘Will you do it?’ And I would hope that the people of this state would vote for the candidates that say ‘Yeah,’ ” Landrieu said.
About $70 billion in projects have been announced in Louisiana as industry takes advantage of low-cost natural gas. The plants and the companies that service them will create tens of thousands of new jobs in a region that already has about 1.4 million people.
Training is only part of the puzzle, said state Rep. Walt Leger III, the New Orleans Democrat who is second in command in the Louisiana House. Industry officials are asking how these new workers are going to get to the new jobs. The business community is working with them as are railroads that own the lines that would be used, he said.
Leger said he accompanied Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden and New Orleans First Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief aide, on a visit to the U.S. Department of Transportation to discuss moving the project along.
“We’ve established a working relationship,” Leger said. “They’re excited about this concept.”
He said a plan under consideration would upgrade existing lines, lease the cars and, along with other ideas, drop the projected operating costs by two-thirds to about $6 million a year.
He said the project could be accomplished in five years, if elected officials lean into it. But Leger said it likely will take much longer.