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.

A team led by HNTB has been selected to plan and design two railroad stations that would be part of a passenger service linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority selected the engineering firm, which is headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, and has an office in Baton Rouge. It has been involved in a number of local projects, including the proposed tram line that would connect downtown and LSU, a drainage master plan for the parish and a reorganization of the Department of Public Works.

The company will lead a team made up of Fregonese Associates of Portland, Oregon, an urban planning firm that developed the FuturEBR land use plan; Manning Architects of New Orleans; Franklin Associates of Baton Rouge, a consulting company that handles community outreach; Stantec, a consulting firm with offices in Baton Rouge that handles transportation and urban design issues; and CNT, a Chicago firm that deals with housing issues.

HNTB was one of four firms to propose handling the rail station planning and was the overwhelming choice of the selection committee, said Tara Titone, RDA director.

The company will 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. The final report is due 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.

“We will not put pen to paper until we meet with the community,” said James Frye, project manager for HNTB. 

The RDA has budgeted $450,000 for HNTB’s work 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 earmarked for designing, building and improving train stations. The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council in August 2016 voted to invest $250,000 for a downtown rail station.

Once consultants start sending in their plans, authorities will have a better idea how much the new station will cost. Estimates have placed the overall project to New Orleans, including improvements to bridges and crossings, at slightly more than $260 million.

“We’ve got a great team, we’re going to turn over every sofa cushion and look for funding everywhere we can legally find it … federal, state, local,” Frye said.

The proposed Baton Rouge to New Orleans rail line would include several other rail terminals, including one at Louis Armstrong International Airport, and locations in Gonzales and LaPlace.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.