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A rendering from a 2012 FutureBR plan shows a train station envisioned as part of a commuter rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

A 2010 study of a possible passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans forecasts that 39,000 riders could be zipping between the two Mississippi River cities each month if the train link were opened three years later.

Ridership could rise to 135,000 people per month by 2038 as service was expanded and train speeds increased, the study estimated then. 

Ten years after those hopeful forecasts were first offered, University of New Orleans researchers have set up a new online poll to better gauge ridership potential and understand how riders would make it to and from future train stations and their final destinations.

Tara Tolford, a research associate with the UNO Transportation Institute, said those early projections applied more generic national ridership estimates. As the rail proposal, which would need a major influx of cash to become a reality, has moved forward in starts and stops, refining those projections has remained an outstanding question. 

"It has been identified as one of the gaps, that we needed better projections for how many people are likely from any given area to use the service," Tolford said.

The new survey and related modeling work is being handled by the Transportation Institute and funded with $150,000 through the LSU Tran-SET Consortium.

The survey is anonymous and can be accessed at https://run.conjoint.ly/study/72517/o1bnxzagl9. The survey takes 15 minutes to complete. Participants will be entered into a contest to win a $50 Visa gift card.

Tolford said the survey will be open at least through the end of June, or later if needed.

The rail plan would upgrade existing lines between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and build new stations in Gonzales and LaPlace, restoring passenger rail service to a corridor that last had it in 1969.

The concept has garnered support from the influential Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the Southern Rail Commission, regional business groups and local officials who see it as a way to further link the two cities into a broader economic region and ease stress on highway corridors. 

The intercity segment could also become a key leg in passenger service between Baton Rouge and Mobile, Alabama, which has garnered more than $37 million in federal grant money for operations and infrastructure. Amtrak is eyeing a restoration of that service.

The Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans service has gained new momentum in recent years after former Gov. Bobby Jindal axed federal funding then-President Barack Obama set aside for high-speed rail in the corridor.

One estimate put the costs to make the Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans leg happen at $260 million. Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he is behind the project; however, backers have said Louisiana would need to put up $100 million of the cost to upgrade the rail network.

Part of the question UNO is trying to answer is how rail riders would complete what's often known in logistical and planning fields as the "last mile," from the train station to their actual destination or vice versa.

Answering those kinds of questions often involve envisioning how and where transitions from one form of transportation to another would happen and what transportation needs exist in particular parts of the Baton Rouge and New Orleans metro areas as well as the places in between.

For instance, public transit that might bring pedestrian rail riders to and from new train depots is limited outside the two major cities. 

"So this study is supposed to be focused on filling in some of those gaps in the information that we have by figuring out how those multi-modal connections would work, how people would get to rail stations should they be developed," Tolford said, "where the sort of likely ridership is in terms of demographic and economic data, and destinations they would actually be trying to get to if they were actually going to be using this."  

Tolford noted that early studies leaned heavily on the idea of relying on commuter traffic for ridership. But she discussed that event-oriented ridership might play a bigger role than previously understood, depending on what the survey finds, if there were additional transportation options once riders arrive in town to go to festivals or Saints and LSU football games. 

The survey will also examine the impact of the novel coronavirus on a future rail service, she said.

Tolford said the survey data will be placed into a computer model to develop more "geograhically nuanced" ridership projections.  

That modeled information will then be brought to various stakeholder groups who have been involved in the project and make recommendations about how to proceed. The entire effort is expected to be finished in the fall.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.