Transportation is on the agenda now at the State Capitol and not just because of the poor road conditions and broken struts or other repairs that thousands of motorists must pay for in Louisiana compared to drivers in other states.

We think that it’s vital to look at ways to get more out of the roads and rails we already have and not just quarrel about the costs of adding lanes or building new bridges. The latter soak up resources, and Louisiana’s unforgiving coastal geology requires investment in maintenance and repairs of highways.

That said, the transportation finance panel working at the Capitol ought to spend some of its time on rail alternatives. It’s an under-appreciated fact about Louisiana transportation system that our rail network is one of the best — and we have in New Orleans and Baton Rouge two cities that could quite easily be models for commuter rail.

In the past year, leaders from the Mississippi River corridor have met with federal officials to promote a passenger rail link.

For leaders in the region, there is a particular urgency for transportation, because workers in the booming petrochemical corridor need easier commutes. And as anyone who travels Interstate 10 regularly knows, a single accident can cause huge delays and create a bottleneck at any time.

Studies released last year and earlier this year predict the costs of such an endeavor would top $400 million.

In October 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration 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. That was absurd then, and as growth in the region continues, it becomes more obviously a huge missed opportunity for the state.

But in a prepared statement this year, 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.”

Now, that’s progress.

But it’s still a lot of money, and if policymakers are focused entirely on white lines in asphalt, they will overlook the transportation potential of rail. Not to mention the need for alternative transport in cases of hurricane evacuation; we’ve had a few years, thank God, without major storms, but those will come one day, and rail is a vital component of our response.

New plans pushed by regional leaders and underwritten by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation could significantly reduce operating costs. A new governor — Jindal is term-limited — could do what the current governor has failed to do, diversify our travel options in southeastern Louisiana.