A long-envisioned passenger rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is still far from reality, but LaPlace is moving forward with plans for a station should the train ever arrive.

St. John the Baptist Parish officials revealed plans for the $5.5 million train station recently, joining Gonzales, downtown Baton Rouge and suburban Baton Rouge as proposed stops that have plans for stations.

That station, to be located in downtown LaPlace, is seen by officials as a potential spur to transforming Main Street into a modern commercial corridor that would serve as a hub for the community.

“The most successful projects of this type have proven to be more than transit centers but are part of a more attractive development that includes more commercial and pedestrian activity,” St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom said.

The hope is that the station would boost retail and restaurant development along Main Street and the surrounding area. A study commissioned by the parish showed upward of 1,100 jobs would be created in the area should the station get built.

Whether it actually will, however, remains a big question.

A passenger rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has been discussed for around a decade, but there still is no funding to create it. 

In order for that to happen, the state would need to put up at least $100 million. That would then be matched by another $100 million from a federal fund, meeting the approximately $200 million price tag for construction of the line, according to John Spain, chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, a group that advocates for new railroad projects in five southeastern states.

That same federal fund — the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program — could also help build stations along the line, and a St. John spokeswoman said the parish is exploring other funding sources for the station.

She said the parish may go forward with a plan to transform Main Street regardless of whether funding is secured for the train station, with things like zoning changes perhaps being steps in that direction.

Parish officials have not announced a timetable for the station or the Main Street development.

There doesn’t seem to be a timetable for the state, either, and there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for starting on one.

No bills prefiled for the current legislative session made any mention of the proposed new rail line. Spain said that is a mistake, because there’s no guarantee the federal money will be available if the state continues delaying the project.

“You’re never going to get a better deal than having the feds pay half of something,” Spain said, adding there’s also federal funding available that could cover much of the operating costs in the first few years of service.

The passenger train would go around 80 mph, according to Spain — much faster than freight trains, which travel no more than 60 mph. The trains would run on existing tracks, with much of the $200 million going toward creating sidings where slower trains can pull off while faster trains pass by.

But a spokeswoman for Kansas City Southern, which owns 67 of the 80 miles of track for the proposed line, said KCS wants nothing to do with commercial passenger service on its track. Instead, it suggests laying down a new railroad track either alongside its existing one or along Interstate 10. Creating an entirely new track would skyrocket the potential cost, however.

For many St. John residents, though, the idea of a passenger train offering $10 rides and less than 90-minute trips between New Orleans and Baton Rouge with no interstate highway traffic would represent a welcome new transportation option, according to a May survey of parish residents. 

Forty-five percent of respondents said they work in an area potentially served by the line.

As for reasons to use it, 93 percent said they would use it to go to a sporting event or concert, 79 percent said for Mardi Gras parades and 74 percent said for dining out.

Proposed stops would be in downtown Baton Rouge, suburban Baton Rouge, Gonzales, LaPlace, Kenner, East Jefferson and Union Passenger Terminal in downtown New Orleans.


Follow Nick Reimann on Twitter, @nicksreimann.