The Metro Council on Wednesday invested in a half-million dollar deal to design a Mid-City transportation hub that would include station for a long-discussed $260 million commuter train between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Officials called the push for a train station a step toward service, but it remains unclear when or if such train service would begin and how it would ultimately be funded.

The Metro Council appropriated $250,000 to the local Redevelopment Authority, which has been tasked with improving the former Entergy site on Government Street where the hub is planned. Matching federal funding through the Southern Rail Commission will pay for the other half of the design cost.

The hope is to make the site a hub for the train, city buses and possibly the proposed downtown-LSU tram plus provide parking for private cars, John Spain, who serves on the rail commission and is executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, said in an interview.

There was some resistance to dedicating the money for the station plan. Councilman Buddy Amoroso said the general fund money could be better spent on other transportation needs. Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel asked several questions about whether the other communities on the route were investing in their own stops, though John Price, the mayor's assistant chief of administration, said those communities had also applied for grants. Amoroso, Banks-Daniel and Scott Wilson voted against spending the money, and Chandler Loupe was absent. 

Amoroso also wondered if the city would build a passenger train station that would sit empty for lack of trains.

Train proponents have not laid out a specific funding plan or timeline for bringing service to Baton Rouge. Price said the city has to begin planning so it can be in the running for future funding. Some grants require that localities have a design ready before committing money to a project, he said.

Turnover in the governor's mansion has changed the political climate, Spain said. Under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, the state turned down $300 million in federal money. Current Gov. John Bel Edwards has voiced his support, Spain continued.

It remains to be seen what share of the financial burden the rail companies and local, state and federal government would each shoulder.

A 2014 feasibility study estimates a commuter train service would likely need a $6.8 million operating subsidy in its first year, though the study also anticipates expanding service and a growing ridership base over time.

When the commuter train service would begin is still unknown. Spain said the first whistle could blow before Edwards's first term is over, though followed up by saying it would take aggressive action to begin running that quickly. Price told the Metro Council it may take more than five years.

For now, the RDA will put out a call for designs for the Entergy site, Price said. In addition to serving as a transportation hub, Spain envisions a site that also incorporates shopping and places for travelers to get a drink or meal.

"The area surrounding the proposed station site is identified as a Regional Center. … Regional Centers are envisioned to contain 'multi-story, mixed-use buildings that support a high level of pedestrian access. … Buildings of two to five stories should be permitted," the RDA's grant application states.

When asked about the $500,000 design work price tag, Spain said the station would also have costs related to being a terminus, such as having a maintenance area. The ultimate cost to build the station will depend on the design.

The commuter line also calls for another stop in Baton Rouge somewhere in the area of the health district. That station is not addressed in the money allocated Wednesday.

Other proposed stops include Gonzales, LaPlace, Kenner, the New Orleans airport and downtown New Orleans.

Train proponents want to see the local line hooked up to the larger Gulf Coast corridor and imagine a system in which a resident of Baton Rouge could get on a bus or tram and take public transportation to Houston, Atlanta and Orlando or ride to the New Orleans airport to travel internationally.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.