Transit planner guest column: Rail for New Orleans, Baton Rouge key to 'accommodating growth for the future' _lowres

Paul Casey

A passenger rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is about accommodating growth for the future.

You can’t cram more vehicles on Interstate 10, except maybe at 2 a.m., if it’s not shut down for a collision. Should Louisiana widen the freeway, build a passenger rail or forget about going anywhere unless your survival depends on it?

Here are the numbers: One freeway lane can handle just 750 cars traveling at 70 mph, fewer if there are heavy trucks in the mix. According to the U.S. Census, there is an average of 1.089 people per automobile in Louisiana. This means an interstate is stuck at a maximum of 800 car commuters per hour, per lane, going the speed limit. Interestingly, maximum vehicle flow on a freeway is three times that number but occurs only when everyone is going 35 miles per hour, bumper to bumper.

While the New Orleans-Baton Rouge rail proposal is sketched out to begin with only eight round trips per day, each track in a two-track modern rail system can accommodate at least 12 trains per hour in each direction. Washington and Oregon are following an incremental approach by making continuous improvements to speed and reliability on Amtrak’s Cascades service between Seattle and Portland, where many segments are still single track.

Regardless of speed, train sets can be sized for travel growth, to the 545-seat TGV Duplex or 900-seat Eurostar. Each modern rail track can serve 10,800 passengers per hour, 10,000 people or more than on one freeway lane. Rail transport can accommodate a huge amount of growth over a very long period.

Passenger rail is not about the fantasy of reducing congestion, because as soon as some drivers switch to the train, latent demand from the thousands of motorists who have been staying put because of congestion, crashes and difficult parking, soon fills up the newly available road space.

The only thing proven to reduce congestion is roadway pricing, but that is a whole other topic. Safe, comfortable, reliable and speedy passenger rail would capture a significant portion of today’s latent travel demand on the River Corridor.

Ticket prices from Baton Rouge would vary by time of day but would cost a lot less than getting your car towed in New Orleans (or worse) and be comparable to the cost of parking in the French Quarter or the New Orleans Central Business District.

The River Corridor Rail project could also provide much-needed rapid transit within Baton Rouge and New Orleans/Metarie/Kenner. Most major commercial developments in Baton Rouge happen to be located between Perkins Road and I-10 within walking distance of the railway. More projects are being planned and built on that axis every year.

Local service train stations at major cross streets would be served by feeder buses to reach all parts of town. These coordinated layers of public transportation would provide congestion-proof mobility for thousands and make the region more competitive for job-intensive investment.

Employment opportunities would open up for the struggling poor who can’t afford a car needed to work at a good job and make it home in time to cook supper for the family. Passengers on local trains would connect with Baton Rouge-New Orleans express trains at key stations such as Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Blended operation of local and intercity trains is nothing new. Widening four miles of I-10 in Baton Rouge will cost $350 million, which comes to almost $88 million per mile. Modernizing the 80-mile-long rail line all the way to New Orleans with local train stations adjacent to every I-10 exit in Baton Rouge would cost $500 million, or a little over $6 million per mile.

Our choices are to condemn property to add hugely expensive freeway lanes that will quickly fill up and only serve 800 passengers per hour, build rail which can grow service almost ad infinitum allowing our economy to grow or continue to stew in the same fumes.

Lafayette resident Paul Casey, AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) was the transit planner for the City of Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus for 14 years and currently advises the Acadiana Metropolitan Planning Organization and Torrance Transit in Los Angeles on how to increase transit ridership, operate more efficiently and support transit oriented development. Follow him on Twitter, @paulcaseylax.