Possible BR, N.O. route discussed
Passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was one of the major topics of interest at public meetings this week to get input on revising the State Rail Plan.
The state Department of Transportation and Development held the meetings.
Talk of setting up a rail line connecting the two cities was the dominant issue at a meeting Wednesday in Baton Rouge at BREC’s Independence Park.
Justin Fox, senior project manager for CDM Smith, the firm retained by DOTD to develop the rail plan, said there was much discussion of the issue the day before at a hearing in New Orleans.
Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence, said about 52,000 people travel between Baton Rouge and New Orleans on a daily basis. CPEX has formed the Connect coalition, a group of about 40 private and public groups in Baton Rouge and New Orleans that are pushing for rail service between the two cities.
“A Baton Rouge-New Orleans connection has tremendous economic potential,” said Doug Daigle, a Baton Rouge resident who attended the meeting. “The interstate highway system is probably becoming a hindrance between the two cities.”
Dean Goodell, an intermodal transportation manager with DOTD, said the state does not have the funding to support the operational costs for a primarily passenger rail system. But the state does allow for parishes and cities to form compacts for rail service and set up ways to cover the operational costs.
“The person who takes one trip a month to New Orleans to go to a football game will not support the train,” Goodell said. “We need enough passengers on the train to support a train.”
The Rev. Pat Mascarella, an advocate for local transportation issues for the disabled, noted that DOTD has spent a fortune on road projects that have not reduced traffic congestion.
“Money has been found for transportation on concrete, but not transportation on rail,” he said.
Fox said there would need to be major upgrades to the existing rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans before passenger rail service could start. Because of the condition of the rail line, cars would not be able to go more than 35 miles an hour.
“You would need to upgrade tracks, culverts and bridges,” he said.
One potential way to cover the cost of the rail service would be to establish a private-public partnership. Those partnerships were a major topic at the earlier public hearing during discussion of the New Orleans Rail Gateway project. The Rail Gateway project is now under study and improvements are being considered to the corridor that stretches from the West Bank of the Mississippi River near the Jefferson Parish/St. Charles Parish line to the Industrial Parkway in New Orleans East.
“Since money is hard to come by, the thinking is to leverage private-sector interest to potentially handle more passengers or more freight,” Fox said.
About 40 people attended the public meeting in Baton Rouge, including representatives from the offices of Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Bill Cassidy, the AARP, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Louisiana Public Service Commission and the Port of Greater Baton Rouge.
Fox said comments at the Wednesday meeting and from the events in New Orleans on Tuesday and Shreveport on Thursday will be used for the State Rail Plan.
Under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, signed by former President George W. Bush in 2008, rail improvements seeking federal assistance must be part of the state plan.
Fox said the goal is to develop a draft of the Louisiana rail plan by February and have the entire report completed by May or June.