Maybe the thought of leisurely driving down a six-lane or eight-lane Interstate 10 is somebody’s idea of fun, but the prospect really ought to inspire people to push harder for a commuter train between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. We need an alternative to highway widening, given that growth will one day make Interstate 10 even more congested than it already is, even with a billion dollar-plus expansion.
The costs of establishing a commuter train were to have been borne by the federal government. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it was likely the 2009 economic stimulus package could have provided $300 million or more to upgrade tracks and buy trains for a commuter line. If still a competitive grant, it would have been as close to a slam-dunk as one can imagine, in those circumstances, with a new administration eager to show it was helping Louisiana’s recovery.
Fail. The administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal, itching to declare its distance from President Barack Obama, refused to even apply. Despite the long-standing GOP support for passenger rail, the new and radical ideological focus of the Jindal administration overrode common sense.
Today, there remain real costs to establishing a commuter link, but it makes so much sense that the obstacles are likely to be overcome.
“We see a new energy around this project,” Beverly Haydel, of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, told donors and community leaders at the group’s annual meeting.
A new administration at the State Capitol is eager to show its commitment to the rail project.
“Louisiana will not be left at the station when it comes to passenger rail in this part of the country,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “Louisiana will be a leader in reintroducing passenger rail to the Gulf South.”
The governor’s judgment is not a purely political one, although this is a project that has been eagerly sought by the business leadership of his state’s two largest cities. Rather, it is a realistic approach to adding an accessible and affordable daily commute between the cities but also providing another hurricane evacuation route; trains’ passenger counts can be scaled up as needed with additional cars.
Multiple studies, from the landmark Louisiana Speaks master plan of 2007 and transit experts since, suggest that the commuter rail is a good idea. It’s particularly so as the New Orleans and Baton Rouge markets grow ever more connected. Growth in the giant petrochemical complex between the two cities is increasing the population between the cities themselves, beyond the suburbanite families in parishes like Ascension.
Opposition to this project is a willful blindness to the change that is going on around us. The nature of work is evolving, and time spent idling behind a wreck on I-10 is wasted; the worker on a train is using her laptop and phone all along the way to the major airports or the business centers in either city.
The notion that a few million in annual subsidies is somehow transit socialism is particularly obtuse. Every form of transportation, even toll roads that are getting a new look in the Baton Rouge area, are subsidized by general taxpayers in multiple ways.
Productivity is the economic analysis that matters. A commuter rail link truly is a no-brainer.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.