In the who-knows-how-distant-future, before the first train shuttling riders from New Orleans to Baton Rouge can pull into its station, the planning process could have nearly as many moving policy parts as the train itself.
For starters, there needs to be better public transit in Baton Rouge, leaders say. There also needs to be improved rail infrastructure between the two cities, and a public subsidy, train officials say.
And it wouldn’t hurt to have an overall planning and development strategy that views the Baton Rouge and New Orleans regions and the connective tissue between them as a “super-region,” with a shared set of goals and partnerships, bureaucrats say.
These were some of the top issues batted about Tuesday during the second annual transit policy forum at LSU hosted by the Connect coalition, a project of the Center for Planning Excellence. Building advocacy for an intercity rail link between the capital and New Orleans has been the genesis behind the forum series.
Discussions about a rail line tend to focus on the population, economy and ridership desirability a rail system both engenders and depends upon, but also spurs other discussions dealing with planning and development, economic growth and some of the more intangible concerns like quality of place.
“We know this regional transportation network will continue to be built-out as a series of incremental investments, so this effort is to ensure that the end result is a well-connected, integrated regional system,” Rachel DiResto, executive vice president at CPEX, said in a statement.
Having a passenger rail system is predicated on sound connections among transit systems, a realistic funding plan and a public and political buy-in to lead the job both now and in the future, say advocates.
John L. Renne, an associate professor in the Department of Planning and Urban Development at the University of New Orleans, called the mission a “bipartisan issue,” which he said he hopes all future candidates for governor can get behind. Renne, like many on Tuesday, made at least passing reference to what’s generally viewed as the Jindal administration’s lukewarm embrace of high-speed rail. In 2009 the state dropped plans to seek about $300 million of special federal aid to launch passenger railroad service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Jindal’s office said the rail plan would be too expensive to operate and maintain.
That hiccup notwithstanding, last month 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, a significant part of the planning process to give the project credence, federal transportation officials said.
“I think it’s really encouraging that the two MPOs are working together … and getting that study complete, and making sure that it’s a good legitimate study,” said Mary Stringfellow, program delivery team leader for the Federal Highway Administration. Then, she added, “you’ve got to come up with how local funding is going to become available.”
For a rail program to be viable, it also needs good local transportation options, said others in the room, which attracted some 150 experts, advocates and residents from across the Baton Rouge and New Orleans regions. For now, local transportation options in Baton Rouge are almost entirely dependent on personal vehicles.
Edgar Cage, a member of Together Baton Rouge, a major force behind the passage of a property tax to bring dedicated funding to bolster the Capital Area Transit System’s bus service, said a rail stop in Baton Rouge would do little to grow ridership if only because Baton Rouge currently lacks a sound transit system to effectively move passengers around the city.
“Currently, it won’t work in Baton Rouge,” Cage remarked. “In New Orleans it would be fine. But in Baton Rouge, how are you going to get to where you’re going?
“If you came from to New Orleans to Baton Rouge, what are you going to do? You’ll have to call a cab, or call someone,” he continued. “So we understand the great need for regional, but we have to get our local first … because you’d be isolated here, the way the current system is.”
In addition to beefing up the connections with local transit in Baton Rouge and all along the Mississippi River corridor, Amtrak officials said the 70-mile route to New Orleans is in need of upgrades, particularly in the section of track over the Bonnet Carre Spillway. Also, the rail company would want to see some committed state funding before entering into any partnership, said Ray Lang, senior director of government affairs at Amtrak.
He said Amtrak could sign a contract with the state Department of Transportation and Development or some other regional or state-created authority.
“But I think you’re on to something here,” he added. “And I think we’d like to work with you.”
Partnerships with individual states to provide regional rail service is an area where Amtrak has shown growth in recent years. In short, the company is paid a subsidy by the state to provide service. The subsidy is often the difference between the revenue brought in through ticket sales and the cost of operation, Lang explained.
Getting the numerous pieces of public policy, private support and monumental planning in place to prepare the entire region for a modern rail system to form a true connective tissue for 48 percent of the state’s population and 63 percent of its tax base will be a daunting challenge, say those attending the forum.
“We may be preaching to the choir,” said the Rev. Patrick J. Mascarella, a retired priest with the Diocese of Baton Rouge, who was attending the forum. “But it’s a large choir and it’s a committed choir; and reality begins with dreams and hopes.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on June 15, 2012, to correctly state that Ray Lang, of Amtrak, said that if the agency participated in passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans it could sign a contract with the state Department of Transportation and Development or some other regional or state-created authority.