Streetcar line desired for Nicholson Drive corridor

All of the development projects going on between downtown Baton Rouge and LSU has led to plans to develop a $100 million streetcar line along the Nicholson Drive corridor.

“It’s astonishing how much is going on,” said John Fregonese, the planner who is helping to implement the FutureBR master land-use plan.

Fregonese cited developments such as IBM’s service center, the residential tower going up next to it, The Water Campus coastal research center and the mixed-use River District development.

More than 3,700 housing units, from condominiums in the River District to new residential units at LSU, are either under construction on the drawing board.

More than 2 million square feet of commercial and office space also is in the works.

Fregonese showed plans for a 7.38-mile streetcar route at the FutureBR Implementation Team meeting Thursday. The route would stretch from the State Capitol to Tiger Stadium.

A study has shown that a streetcar line would be feasible and could be done without rebuilding roads. The line would easily fit under Interstate 10.

“Most of it could be done without affecting curbs,” Fregonese said. The work also fits with LSU’s master plan for the Nicholson corridor.

The next step is to do a funding plan. Typically, about 70 percent of streetcar line costs are paid for by federal funds; the rest of the money comes from local sources, Fregonese said.

While federal money has been limited in recent years because of Washington budget-cutting, Fregonese said cities have received money for streetcar projects. The $53 million Loyola Avenue streetcar line, which opened in New Orleans in 2013, received $45 million in federal funds.

Other cities to get federal money for streetcars include Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Seattle and Portland, Ore., where Fregonese works.

The amount of development activity in the Nicholson corridor makes Baton Rouge “very competitive” for federal money for a streetcar line. And the impact on economic development is one of the criteria used to determine if federal money should be used on a transportation project, Fregonese said.

Along with the money from the U.S. Department of Transportation, other potential funding sources include the city-parish, fees from riders, adjacent property owners and the state.

“There are usually five or six funding sources,” Fregonese said.

Cities have turned to streetcars in recent years as a way of alleviating traffic problems, tying together neighborhoods, attracting businesses and luring residents.

Streetcars attract 50 percent more riders compared to municipal buses on the same routes, Fregonese said. And businesses and residents want to live and work along the line.

“Sometimes, you can get 30 or 40 times the private investment along the route,” he said.

The Nicholson Drive streetcar project is one of three things Fregonese is working on. The others are a “complete streets” policy that will set parameters to help create streets that cater to pedestrians and cyclists, not just cars. The other is an update to the city-parish unified development code that will set design regulations and new parking requirements.

Drafts of the complete streets and UDC updates are circulating. The plan is to have open houses to discuss the changes sometime in April and take the new regulations to the city-parish Planning Commission in June or July.

In other business to come before the FutureBr Implementation Team:

A report on passenger rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans should be released in the next few weeks, said John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The report will look at the feasibility of rail service and how to finance the project.

Spain said the Entergy site on Government Street, which was recently donated to the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, is anticipated to serve as one station for the rail line.

An architect will be picked to design the Water Campus on March 31, Spain said. A request has been sent out to take bids on the project. Spain said the first building in the campus, which will be the home for The Water Institute of the Gulf, will open in April 2016.

Plans for the renovated River Center Branch Library have been submitted to the city-parish Department of Public Works for cost estimates and are being reviewed by library officials, said architect Rex Cabaniss of Washer Hill Lipsomb Cabaniss. Construction of the $19 million library should be underway by the end of 2014.

“These things are real and they’re going forward and they’re going to transform Baton Rouge in ways that I don’t think people can fully comprehend at this time,” said John Price, assistant chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden and chairman of the implementation team. “This is a very, very exciting time.”