The effort to develop a passenger rail line linking New Orleans and Baton Rouge could be gaining momentum.
The topic came up Wednesday during the 10th annual Louisiana Smart Growth Summit at the Shaw Center for the Arts in downtown Baton Rouge.
Knox Ross, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Rail Commission, an agency set up to promote rail service, said the cities that are succeeding and growing have made tremendous commitments to rail. That includes places across the political spectrum from Austin, Texas, to Salt Lake City, Utah.
“These are amenities young people want,” Ross said.
Both state Rep. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the two candidates for governor, have said they would support a rail line connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Ross said there’s a study about extending Amtrak service from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida, and talk about creating a line along the Interstate 20 corridor linking Dallas-Fort Worth with Meridian, Mississippi.
“So many of our cities are losing air service, they’re at a competitive disadvantage,” Ross said. Rail service allows communities to tie themselves to a larger metro area like New Orleans, Dallas or Orlando.
John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, said a play book has been developed to help Edwards or Vitter establish rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans during their first term as governor.
“We have an opportunity,” he said.
In a separate discussion, the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation said that urban planners and engineers have a chance to build transit systems that create opportunities for more people.
“We have an opportunity to make this generation of American transportation planning the most restorative in our history,” Anthony Foxx, secretary of the federal transportation department said in his closing keynote address to summit participants.
Foxx said there have been problems with highways, airports and rail lines “carving up neighborhoods” and leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of residents. “Instead of a lifeline, transportation became a wall,” he said.
The new thinking is building transportation networks that bring opportunities for jobs and a better life to people, instead of cutting them off.
One technical assistance program launched by the agency is LadderSTEP, which seeks to connect people to jobs, build transportation infrastructure and revitalize distressed neighborhoods.
In April, Baton Rouge was one of seven cities selected by the Federal Transit Authority to participate in LadderSTEP and get technical assistance for developing a streetcar line connecting LSU and downtown. The first meeting with federal officials was held Wednesday.
Michael Townes, a rail and transit market sector leader for HNTB, a Virginia-based engineering firm working on several projects in Baton Rouge, said officials with the FTA see the LSU to downtown streetcar line as a “showcase project.”
“This could be a national template for implementing a streetcar line and the economic development benefits in a medium-sized community,” Townes said.