GONZALES — A field shaded by oak trees and crape myrtles may end up being the first physical reality of a long-discussed commuter train line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Later this month, boosters of a commuter railway for the region — an idea with backers in both cities, but still lacking key financial support — plan to hold a news conference on the green field in the center of Gonzales to try to draw the support of gubernatorial candidates.
“We want all the candidates to sign on,” said Kristin Gisleson Palmer, a former New Orleans City Council member and chairwoman of the Louisiana Super Region Rail Authority.
The city of Gonzales in May purchased the property for $350,000, buying an unused building, a parking lot and an open field. City leaders see it as a step toward redeveloping downtown, a key component of the recently adopted master plan.
The city’s first choice for the land? A train station.
“We don’t make that final decision, but we’re trying to position ourselves” for the possibility of a commuter train, City Clerk Clay Stafford said. If that doesn’t come to fruition, there are a number of other possible uses for the property, which was once home to a community college and a church, Stafford said.
The idea of upgrading existing rail infrastructure between Baton Rouge and New Orleans to create a commuter train route has been a favorite idea of economic development groups and some politicians in recent years. But the project, which would require improvements to rail infrastructure as well as the building of train stations, could cost $262 million, according to a 2014 study.
In 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal rejected the idea of going after federal stimulus financing for the project, raising questions about the financial viability of a passenger train. Supporters say potential ridership for the train is there, pointing to existing commuters between the two cities and continued economic development along the river.
Now, they want the candidates running for governor to sign on to the idea, said Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) in Baton Rouge, which is doing research on the rail line and other transportation issues in its initiative called the CONNECT Coalition.
“We’re trying to get their attention,” St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said.
Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux said that once his city was floated as one of seven possible train stops on the line, he and the City Council wanted to “jump on the idea.”
The property where they want to put the train station is in the oldest part of Gonzales on North Boullion Avenue, near existing railroad tracks. It is close to where a train depot once stood years ago.
Officials and representatives from New Orleans and Baton Rouge and the seven parishes that make up the state’s Super Region Rail Authority will be at the news conference on Sept. 16.
The parishes represented in the rail authority, in addition to Ascension and St. James, are East Baton Rouge, Orleans, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and Jefferson.
The communities “recognize that the industrial boom is having a huge impact on infrastructure,” DiResto said. “They also see the rail as really being able to allow the labor pool access” to jobs.
CPEX, which has served as staff for the rail authority, estimates the boom in the energy industry is projected to produce 35,000 new construction jobs along the Interstate 10 corridor in 2016.
The state’s Super Region Rail Authority, a volunteer organization, was created by the legislature in 2012 to advocate for and operate regional rail.
“We are slowly but surely working toward making this thing happen,” said Ascension Parish Council member Teri Casso, who’s a member of the group.
“The funding is the most important mechanism — and the political will,” she said. “There are federal funds available. Our hope would be to capture some of those funds.”
Natalie Robottom, president of St. John the Baptist Parish, where the community of LaPlace is another potential site for a train stop, said the commuter rail would benefit the region’s economy and transportation system — and in times of emergency, could provide another means of evacuation.