Passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans could be a significant piece of glue binding the state’s two major economic engines, say economic development officials.
That especially would be true if that train connects with Louis Armstrong International Airport, said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc., the lead economic development organization in the New Orleans metro region. The New Orleans airport is the most crucial transportation game piece in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge “super-region,” Hecht added, speaking on a panel discussion Tuesday during the second annual transit policy forum at LSU. The forum was hosted by the Connect coalition, a project of the Center for Planning Excellence. Building advocacy for an intercity rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was the genesis behind the forum series.
When asked to comment on the most important assets of the super-region, Hecht said, “To me, it’s the airport, the universities and the culture.”
Hecht also called for better connectivity between the capital and the Crescent City as one way to keep and grow the kinds of knowledge-based jobs the region desperately wants to foster.
Adam Knapp, who heads the Baton Rouge Area Chamber — Baton Rouge’s counterpart to GNO Inc., advocated a continued push for planning policies that look long and far. In other words, planning and development policies would have a deliberate direction toward giving the entire Baton Rouge and New Orleans regions a road map for growth over the next 20 to 50 years.
Pooling assets to grow the economic development mojo of southeast Louisiana is at the heart of why people like Knapp and Hecht want to put aside the long-held parochialism somewhat endemic to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It’s an effort to place the region on a more competitive playing field with metro regions like Houston or Atlanta.
A desire to work better as a region was spurred in a large part by the business community, Knapp said.
“When I came into this role in 2008 I spent a lot of time with the Baton Rouge area business community,” Knapp said. “And what shocked me was when I asked people what concerns you have and how do we move our region forward, one of the top things that CEOs in the Baton Rouge area had a concern about was the relationship between the Baton Rouge area and the New Orleans region. There was a historic friction that wasn’t doing anybody any good, where we’re constantly viewing the other one as a competitor.
“Community leaders in New Orleans kind of viewed Baton Rouge as a ‘cow town,’” Knapp continued. “And the folks in Baton Rouge always viewed New Orleans as the city had a leg up on us. And in reality, the two needed each other.”
The Baton Rouge and New Orleans chambers then began an initiative to work closer together, which lead to the “super-region” concept, Knapp said.
“The reason why we’re working together right now … actually started with transportation,” Hecht added.
BRAC commissioned a study in 2007 asking where the super-region’s airport should be. Should it be New Orleans’ Moisant Field? Should it be the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport? Or should a new regional airport be built someplace in the Donaldsonville area?
“The massive olive branch that really was offered by the Baton Rouge business community to the New Orleans business community was around the issue of the airport,” Hecht told the room, a gathering made up of almost equal parts New Orleans and Baton Rouge residents and officials.
The study concluded the Baton Rouge and New Orleans airports should develop independently.
“Traditionally, that report might have conveniently been forgotten on a shelf. It would have been buried,” Hecht said, “because it wasn’t necessarily the answer that somebody with a parochial interest in Baton Rouge or Ascension would want to hear.”
That level of cooperation and planning should continue, both men say. This is despite the fact the rail idea suffered a setback in 2009 when the Jindal administration 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. The funding was part of an initiative by President Barack Obama to grow regional high-speed rail systems.
“While that didn’t go forward, it has kept our two regions working together,” Knapp said.
What has become clear is that selling a rail project as an economic development game piece for the region will have to get the region’s public and political buy-in, along with a funding commitment, Knapp said.
“If we can’t figure out a way to pay for it, it’s not going to happen,” Knapp said.
“But it’s going to take the parishes there to figure that out, because the state’s not going to take that on.”