BR-New Orleans rail service study due by year’s end

A study to determine the feasibility of operating passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and how to finance the project should be completed by the end of the year.

Maj. Gen. John Basilica Jr., vice president and Gulf Coast district leader for HNTB, an engineering firm with offices across the U.S., said the goal of the study is to determine realistic capital expenditures for establishing rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and the operating costs.

Basilica was one of the speakers on a panel about rail service in Louisiana that was part of Tuesday’s Smart Growth Summit held at the Shaw Center for the Arts. The summit, sponsored by the Center for Planning Excellence, concludes Wednesday.

Plans are for the rail line to start near downtown Baton Rouge, around Florida Boulevard or Government Street, then make a stop either on Essen Lane or Bluebonnet Boulevard.

The rail line will also make stops in Gonzales or Sorrento; in LaPlace; at Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner; in Jefferson Parish, possibly near Zephyr Field; and at an undetermined New Orleans location before stopping at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, Basilica said.

No matter what route the rail line takes, some major construction projects will have to happen. The Bonnet Carre Spillway Bridge is in such poor condition that rail cars can’t go more than 10 miles an hour while crossing it, Basilica said. It will take $62 million to fix the bridge.

It will take a combination of public and private dollars to make passenger rail a reality. “Any big project like this will take multiple financing,” Basilica said.

New Orleans Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, also a panelist in the discussion, said by improving the transportation system, it will provide an economic boost to people in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. After all, the two biggest expenditures for a typical household are housing and transportation.

“This will make us stronger as a region and a state and a lot more competitive,” she said.

John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, said the goal is to have freight rail operators form a partnership with the passenger rail movement because investments made to the rail line benefit both parties.

Once HTNB completes its report, the plan is to meet with railroad companies.

“I think this will happen sooner rather than later. And when I say ‘sooner,’ I’m talking five years out,” he said.