Baton Rouge and New Orleans are still pursuing plans to establish a passenger rail service linking the two major metropolitan areas.
This past week, the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Planning Organization approved spending $105,000 in federal money for a feasibility study of a commuter rail service to New Orleans.
The New Orleans Metropolitan Planning Organization is matching the expenditure with another $105,000, and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation provided about $90,000 for the study, said Huey Dugas, executive director of the Capital Region Planning Commission.
“The first time that this came up it was referred to as high-speed rail,” Dugas said. “The state said they were not interested in participating, but now it’s coming back and it’s referred to as commuter rail.”
The proposed rail line’s future became unclear in 2009 after Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration said it would not apply for $300 million in federal stimulus money to undertake the project. Jindal aides have said the administration was concerned about the rail line’s ongoing costs, estimated at $18 million a year, once it would become operational.
The rail itself would not have been high-speed, but it could have been linked to any high-speed rail network along the Gulf Coast.
“High-speed rail is very expensive and requires a new rail line and you can’t use the existing line,” Dugas said. “You have to build a new super smooth line.”
The proposed commuter rail shuttles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans would travel about 80 miles per hour, while high-speed passenger trains typically exceed 100 mph, Dugas said.
The commuter rail service, as proposed, could utilize existing railroad tracks, Dugas said, noting that the Kansas City Southern freight train tracks are being eyed as an option.
A passenger rail link between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was included in the FutureBR plan, Baton Rouge’s master plan for issues of long-term land use and transportation.
Similarly, the Center for Planning Excellence, has been pushing in recent years for a commuter rail service as part of its “Connect” initiative. The initiative aims to link the two metro areas and offer improved access to affordable housing and jobs.
Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence, said 50,000 people regularly commute between Baton Rouge and New Orleans to go to work and return home.
Linking the two cities by rail is a priority, DiResto said, because it would serve to reduce growing traffic congestion and could provide an evacuation alternative in the event of an emergency.
John Fregonese, who led the development of the FutureBR plan, said the Baton Rouge-New Orleans rail service would also benefit local tourism, allowing Baton Rouge and New Orleans residents to make day trips to eat at restaurants or attend sports events in their neighboring cities.
He also said the line would connect major medical facilities in the two cities and give Baton Rouge residents who fly out of New Orleans International Airport another way to get to the airport.
“High-speed rail is really successful when it competes with short airline travel for 200- or 300-mile trips,” Fregonese said. “But no one is flying from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.”
As proposed in the FutureBR plan, the Baton Rouge station could be located near downtown, off Government Street or Florida Boulevard.
A 2009 study of rail service between the two cities envisioned passenger stations in downtown Baton Rouge, southeast East Baton Rouge Parish, Gonzales, LaPlace, Kenner and downtown New Orleans.
Fregonese said New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the two largest urban areas of Louisiana, need a stronger link so they can be considered sister cities such as Dallas and Fort Worth in Texas or Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota.
“They have a lot more to offer together than New Orleans or Baton Rouge separately,” Fregonese said.
In 2010, the Louisiana Legislature approved a bill creating the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact, which aims to create a five-member panel to see if local governments along the proposed route would be willing to levy taxes and take other steps to support the rail service.