Inside Report: Streetcar line idea tossed around for BR

Much has been said in recent weeks about a proposal to develop a $100 million streetcar line along the Nicholson Drive corridor.

Talk surrounding the project has come, at least publicly, from members of the FutureBR Implementation Team and Mayor-President Kip Holden, who has said he is looking for federal funds from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But little has been said about who would be in charge of the streetcar, and to what degree the Capital Area Transit System would be involved in the project.

John Fregonese, the planner who is helping to implement the FutureBR master land-use plan, said CATS would likely be involved, but may not necessarily be the manager of the streetcar system.

He noted that in Portland, Ore., the city owns the streetcar system, but it is managed by a private nonprofit made up of the city, the transit agency, the redevelopment authority and some developers. The streetcar system contracts with the transit agency to provide drivers and do maintenance.

“Operations and maintenance of the streetcar is a different skill set than CATS now has, so that’s something to see what the best option is,” Fregonese said. “That would be the next step, detailed design, operations planning and a finance package.”

But on Feb. 18, CATS CEO Bob Mirabito said during a board meeting that he recently met with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, another street car stakeholder, and expressed his desire to be named operator of the trolley system.

“The Foundation was interested in our access to possible funding sources for the $100 million project while I conveyed to the Foundation that CATS wanted to be made the operator of the trolley system in its role as the RTA.”

After the meeting, he said in an interview that he expects CATS will now play a larger role in the streetcar talks.

“Going forward, it’ll be a joint effort, not only between us and BRAF, but everyone else,” Mirabito said. “We will support any group and work with any group in Baton Rouge.”

He said CATS is the only designee in East Baton Rouge Parish that can receive federal transportation dollars.

“Any federal funding has to come through CATS, so if we’re going to bring money to the table, we’re going to participate in the project,” he said.

R.J. Goebel, planning director for the Capital Region Planning Commission, said CATS serves as the public transportation commission for the area and therefore has authority over any public transit lines in the region.

“You can’t run a line that doesn’t have their approval,” he said.

The project is still in its infancy.

Fregonese has said the plans are for a streetcar line that would stretch 7.38 miles from the State Capitol to Tiger Stadium, providing a connection between downtown Baton Rouge and LSU.

A study has shown the streetcar line could be done without rebuilding roads and could easily fit under Interstate 10.

Typically, about 70 percent of streetcar line costs are paid for by federal funds and the rest of the money comes from local sources.

Streetcars attract 50 percent more riders than municipal buses on the same routes, Fregonese has said.

Rebekah Allen is a city-parish government reporter. She can be reached at rallen@theadvocate.com or follow her on Twitter @rebekahallen. Read The Advocate’s new City Hall Buzz blog at www.blogs.theadvocate.com/CityHallBuzz.