Louisiana is late for the train, but it’s one of the cheaper ways that the new administration in the State Capitol can diversify transportation options and please the business communities in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans metropolitan areas.
When a major economic stimulus package was passed by Congress to deal with the 2008-09 recession, Louisiana failed to apply for a grant to upgrade tracks and buy trains for a New Orleans-to-Baton Rouge rail link.
With Gov. Bobby Jindal’s then-rising political aspirations, he was looking for a project to shoot down to prove his opposition to President Barack Obama. The funding perhaps was not a sure thing, but it was quite likely, given the new Obama administration’s sympathy for our recovery from the 2005 hurricanes — not to mention, shelves full of studies showing that it’s a good option for transportation. Complementing existing roads with a rail connection was a recommendation of the 2007 Louisiana Speaks master plan for the coastal parishes.
While Jindal caused us to miss the stimulus funding opportunity, the business communities of the river regions and political leaders are not giving up. This fall, a group of them called for a rail link, as reported by The Advocate’s Ellyn Couvillion.
“This project will represent a string that will run through the super region, connecting people and jobs,” Buddy Boé, chief administrative officer of St. Charles Parish, said at the event in Gonzales.
He was among many parish and city leaders gathering on a piece of open land that the city of Gonzales purchased in May as the possible future site of one of several train stops along the line. In addition to Ascension and St. Charles, other parishes represented were Orleans, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist and St. James.
According to the Louisiana Super Rail Authority, created by the Legislature in 2012, a one-way train ticket for the proposed commuter rail would cost an estimated $10 and would give commuters a ride between the two cities, with stops in downtown Baton Rouge, suburban Baton Rouge, Gonzales, LaPlace, New Orleans International Airport, Jefferson Parish and the Union Passenger Terminal in downtown New Orleans.
Estimated capital costs of the project are $262.4 million, with estimated annual operating costs of $8.89 million, according to the Rail Authority. That construction cost is far less than the expansion of the inner-city interstate in Baton Rouge and a fraction of the cost of a new bridge across the Mississippi River.
And for that we get the use of existing infrastructure, a rail line, to add to daily transit options and as another avenue for hurricane evacuation.
“Your next governor is going to have to lead the charge, go to Congress,” said Knox Ross, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, appointed by the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to support rail initiatives in the Southeastern states. The stimulus deal was the federal equivalent of missing a 0 percent car loan but funding options can be identified from federal transit funds and other sources today.
Kristin Gisleson-Palmer, the former New Orleans councilwoman who chairs the Rail Authority, said that “workforce issues are driving this. Industries in our region have planned more than $20 billion in development and expansion projects over the next several years. This will place huge demands on our transportation system.”
The logic of extending the connections between Baton Rouge and the Crescent City is not the final answer to the transportation issues of the region, but it’s a solid start and one that has been embraced across the country.
With Jindal passing into history, it’s time to look at new thinking in transportation.
Commuter rail is a no-brainer.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer at The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.