So, sitting in traffic, inching past the only part of Interstate 10 from Santa Monica, California, to Jacksonville, Florida, that narrows to a single lane, allows plenty of time for daydreaming.
Will there ever be passenger railroad service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans? Actually, there’s a plan.
Every morning at 7 a.m., a passenger train would leave Baton Rouge, probably from a station where the old Entergy facility is located on Government Street, stopping in Gonzales, LaPlace, the airport in New Orleans, somewhere near Zephyr Field in Jefferson and arrive at 8:30 a.m. at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola. Running along existing freight lines, another train would cart passengers in the opposite direction, arriving in Baton Rouge at the same time.
A study showed that 26,000 workers commuted from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and another 22,000 went the opposite direction. Supporters also point out that more than 2.2 million people are in the Baton Rouge-New Orleans corridor.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently chatted up a group of business leaders at a forum in the old Jax Brewery, pointing out that only people with cars will be able to work in the 42,000 new jobs projected for the new and expanded plants being built along the Mississippi River, unless a rail connection is built. The business leaders intently stirred their coffee and checked their iPhones.
Passenger rail service has been a dream unfulfilled for decades, kind of a like a loop around Baton Rouge or an interstate connecting Lafayette and the West Bank Expressway. Why, after all these years, should a passenger train be given any serious consideration?
“I’m asked about that all the time,” said John Spain, of the Baton Rouge Foundation, while tromping around in Washington, D.C., snow between appointments where he was lobbying congressmen and Amtrak officials on behalf of the Southern Rail Commission, a congressionally authorized panel representing Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The thing to remember while sitting in traffic, Spain says, is that passenger rail service will alleviate some of the traffic jam, but it is only a part of several infrastructure components needed to fix the problem, like expanding the interstates, building new bridges and suchlike.
State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, another ardent passenger rail supporter, says even with the huge budget deficits facing the state, money can be found to further the effort.
It’d cost $262.4 million; about a fourth of that would be to improve the bridge over the Bonnet Carré Spillway — trains have to slow to 10 mph to cross — and to upgrade crossings and such, Spain said.
Plans say the service would cost about $9 million a year to operate and, assuming a $10 per trip fare, would need a $7 million annual subsidy.
“I really wish Bobby Jindal hadn’t refused that money,” state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said almost wistfully of the $300 million in federal money available in 2009.
Back then, when Gov. Jindal was first earnestly trying to make his mark on national politics, he mocked President Barack Obama for “wasteful” spending to prime a sluggish national economy, including money for high-speed rails. Then national television pundits discovered that his Department of Transportation and Development had applied for stimulus money to develop rail service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The Washington Monthly, a magazine in D.C., counted two days between a rant by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC — he called Jindal one of the “worst people in the world” — and the governor pulling the plug on any efforts to harvest that money.
Jindal said he was concerned about the operating costs and that local governments had no plans to come up with the necessary matching dollars.
State Sen. Robert Adley is less than sanguine about prospects.
But then, as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, the Benton Republican has watched the $717 million Transportation Trust Fund — gasoline taxes, fees that are supposed to pay for maintaining roads and bridges — get looted to pay operating expenses at the state Department of Transportation and Development, local governments and other expenses.
“That is outrageous,” Adley said. “Out of $717 million, only $27 million goes to preserve our roads.”
And because of the way federal matching works, most of that money ends up maintaining the interstates.
“Forget about building a new bridge in Baton Rouge,” Adley said. And don’t get anxious about any rail service anytime soon.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@the advocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.