GONZALES — City and parish leaders from Baton Rouge to New Orleans vowed Wednesday to make the idea of a commuter rail line between the two cities a reality.
“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 a news conference Wednesday morning in Gonzales.
The event was held under a large canopy set up 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.
The field on North Bouillion Avenue, near existing railroad tracks in the oldest part of Gonzales, is the first tangible sign of the long-sought commuter line.
“Our downtown area was once thriving. We’re very excited” about the possibility of recapturing that, Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux said Wednesday.
In addition to Ascension and St. Charles, other parishes represented were Orleans, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist and St. James.
The idea of upgrading existing rail infrastructure between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in what’s called the super region, to make a commuter rail line has been studied by economic development groups and some political officials in recent years.
According to the Louisiana Super Rail Authority, a volunteer organization created by the state 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 New Orleans Union Terminal.
Estimated capital costs of the project are $262.4 million, with estimated annual operating costs of $8.89 million, according to the Rail Authority.
In 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal rejected the idea of going after some $300 million in federal stimulus financing for the commuter line.
“I can assure you, there’s no one here today that will stop until the next governor understands” the importance of the project, said state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, representing Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office at Wednesday’s news conference.
“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 U.S.
Louisiana gubernatorial candidates Scott Angelle, Jay Dardenne, John Bel Edwards and David Vitter were invited to Wednesday’s news conference but weren’t at the event, citing schedule conflicts, according to organizers.
However, in recent gubernatorial forums, the candidates have voiced support in varying degrees for a commuter line.
“I think it’s a visionary thing to do,” Dardenne said at a candidates forum hosted Monday in New Orleans by the Alliance for Good Government.
Dardenne also spoke in favor of the rail line at a gubernatorial forum hosted earlier this month in New Orleans by the Southeast Super Region Committee.
At that Sept. 4 event, candidate Edwards said, “We need to move forward with that. It’s disgraceful that our governor turned down $400 million for that project.”
Angelle also has voiced support for the commuter train, as has Vitter, who’s said, however, that he’s concerned about operating expenses.
Kristin Gisleson-Palmer, chairwoman of the Rail Authority, said Wednesday 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,” Gisleson-Palmer said.
The drive toward a commuter rail represents an “unprecedented collaboration” among New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the area’s parishes, she said.
The communities aren’t competing against each other, Gisleson-Palmer said.
“We’re competing together against the rest of the country,” she said.
“We could have easily been in our own little cocoons, but we’re coming out of that,” East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden said.
“I can tell you, I will encourage other discussions through East Baton Rouge Parish,” he said.
St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel added: “It’s about time; let’s make the money happen.”
Tyler Bridges, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this story.