BR-N.O. passenger rail service estimated at $262 million

Startup costs for a passenger train linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans on existing freight tracks would be $262 million, about half a previous estimate, with federal funds underwriting up to 80 percent of that amount, according to a rail study released Tuesday.

The study by HNTB Corp., an engineering firm with offices across the U.S., said the cost is substantially less than the $448 million estimated in a 2010 study for the state of Louisiana.

“Our reaction is very positive,” said John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, one of the groups that commissioned the HNTB study. “There is a lot of interest in a passenger train and still a lot of support.”

HNTB performed the study for BRAF, the Capital Region Planning Commission and the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission.

HNTB advised leasing trains instead of purchasing them to reduce upfront capital costs. Tickets could be as low as $10 each way. Ridership for twice daily service is estimated at 210,000 in the first year, HNTB said. The service would include stops in between the two cities, and could ultimately grow to more frequent service with a possible station near the New Orleans International Airport.

The earlier plan recommended rail improvements for speeds of up to 110 miles per hour.

HNTB recommends intercity passenger rail operations with maximum speeds of 79 mph, a rate that it said is competitive with car travel.

“With the length of the route and the multiple stops, 79 miles per hour is more than adequate,” Spain said.

A trip would take 95 minutes, with seven stops on the route. A morning and afternoon train for commuters would start in each of the two cities on similar schedules.

Recommended stations would be at Government Street at South 14th Street near downtown Baton Rouge; at the medical corridor on Essen Lane in Baton Rouge; at East Cornerview Street near Gonzales City Hall; west of Main Street in LaPlace; adjacent to the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner; at Zephyr Field in Jefferson Parish; and the Union Passenger Terminal station near the Superdome, where passengers can access the Loyola Avenue streetcar and other transit options.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the study shows that passenger rail in south Louisiana is possible.

“Passenger rail will cut travel time, reduce congestion, attract economic development for the entire region, create new jobs and unite two great cities,” he said. “Smart, reliable transportation is essential to building a stronger Louisiana.”

HNTB’s recommended startup budget includes $1.5 million for each train station, with the expectation that local communities might spend more on surrounding infrastructure to draw investment for housing and retail in transit­‐oriented developments, as has happened in other cities.

Officials with Louis Armstrong International recently announced plans to construct a new terminal on the north side of the airport’s property, slated to open in 2018. HNTB said there have been initial discussions to determine how best to connect rail passengers to the new terminal. The goal is to one day have hourly service that would stop at the New Orleans airport.

To begin, the train would require an annual operations subsidy of nearly $6.8 million, about one-third of the estimate in the 2010 study. HNTB suggested alternatives to cover the operating cost, including tax increment financing on the projects expected to be developed along the rail line.

Consultants envision a convenient alternative for the 1.4 million people who live in the booming parishes along the rail line. A passenger train service would allow riders to work during commutes; offer an evacuation route during hurricanes, especially to Baton Rouge hospitals; and supply easy connections to events, such as LSU and New Orleans Saints football games, Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.

Existing rail infrastructure owned by Kansas City Southern and Canadian National would be improved to provide for safer movement of cargo and passengers along the 80-mile corridor. Crossings would be upgraded and rail lines doubled in some sections to allow freight and passenger trains to move efficiently on the same lines. Many bridges would be strengthened or replaced so trains could travel at higher speeds. Replacing the 1.8­-mile wooden rail bridge across the Bonnet Carre Spillway, where trains now crawl at 10 miles per hour, is the largest capital cost at $62.1 million.

Maj. Gen. John Basilica Jr., vice president and Gulf Coast district leader for HNTB, said the next steps are to hire a private firm to do an environmental study that evaluates and documents the impact of the project, which would clear the way for federal money to be used for the Bonnet Carre bridge replacement and to develop a plan on how to provide passenger service on the railroad.

“These steps should be done simultaneously while working on lining up federal funding and other sources of funding,” Basilica said.

While some of the big federal dollars set aside for high speed rail projects won’t be available for the service, Spain said there are different pots of money out there.

“I’m optimistic we will ultimately be successful,” he said. Not only will the rail line connect the two largest cities in Louisiana, he said it would help alleviate housing issues for workers at chemical and manufacturing plants in Ascension and St. James parishes and clear traffic congestion on Interstate 10.

“I’ve publicly said in five years or so, we will see the train run,” Spain said.