Lanny Keller: Baton Rouge to New Orleans commuter rail a no-brainer; let’s not miss the train again _lowres

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

The proposed Baton Rouge to New Orleans passenger rail service took another step forward Thursday as the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority began accepting proposals for planning and designing two rail stations in Baton Rouge.

The request for proposals asks companies to evaluate locations and develop a master plan for a terminus station downtown, near the former Entergy site at 1509 Government St., and in the health district in the Perkins-Essen-Bluebonnet corridor.

Gwen Hamilton, interim president and chief executive officer of the RDA, said local and regional companies have been interested since they heard about the impending requests for proposals several months ago.

“We expect to get some good proposals,” she said.

Proposals will be accepted until Sept. 22, then be whittled to a short list by Oct. 2. Firms will make presentations to the RDA board the week of Oct. 16. A contract will be awarded during the last week of October. The final report will be turned in a little over in December 2018.

Part of the request calls for consultants to come up with a way to pay for building and operating the terminals, including identifying opportunities for public-private partnerships. That’s a step required by the Federal Rail Commission, Hamilton said. Once consultants start sending in their plans, authorities will have a better idea how much the new station will cost, though the overall project to New Orleans, including improvements to bridges and crossings, has been estimated at slightly more than $260 million.

The RDA has budgeted $450,000 for the RFPs, money that has come from federal and local sources. The Southern Rail Commission awarded the city-parish $250,000 in federal funds in December, part of a $2.5 million distribution to local governments in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that was earmarked for designing, building and improving train stations. The East Baton Rouge Metro Council in August 2016 voted to invest $250,000 for a downtown rail station.

Ever since the RDA started redeveloping the Entergy site at Government and 14th Streets several years ago, there has been speculation that any Baton Rouge to New Orleans railroad would have a station there because it is next to the Kansas City Southern railroad line. The RFP notes that while it has been assumed any station would be west of the rail line, it could be built to the east of the line or on the south side of Government Street. The Electric Depot development is currently being built at the Entergy site; it will include housing, office space, an entertainment venue and a pizza parlor/microbrewery.

The RDA’s experience with the Entergy site led the agency to be put in charge of the rail station RFP, Hamilton said. After all, the property is contiguous to where the terminal station will most likely be built. “This could be a seamless, multi-modal type center,” she said, that would tie into the CATS bus system, the proposed Downtown-to-LSU streetcar, the Downtown Greenway and Baton Rouge Metro Airport.

The health district station would be located around Essen Lane or the proposed Midway Boulevard north-south connector between Essen and Bluebonnet Boulevard. It is also expected to tie into CATS and a proposed intra-district transportation network that would encompass the major medical facilities in the area. Those include Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Baton Rouge General - Bluebonnet and Pennington Biomedical Research Center. That transportation network may include urban gondolas that travel hundreds of feet in the air.

The proposed Baton Rouge to New Orleans rail line would include several other rail terminals, including one at Louis Armstrong International Airport. John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and a longtime advocate of the rail line, said Gonzales and LaPlace are set to put out similar RFPs to the RDA request. Gonzales set aside $50,000 to study building a terminal and received a $50,000 match from the Southern Rail Commission, while St. John the Baptist Parish put up $74,000 and also got a $50,000 match.    

“This doesn’t mean they’re going to build the rail line, but you can’t have a train if you don’t have a station,” Spain said.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.