Baton Rouge-New Orleans commuter rail still on governor’s priority list

    A recent federal grant set in motion the infancy of a long-discussed commuter rail project from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, but many of the components of the project are still up in the air, and the state would have to find around $260 million to fund it.

    The Southern Rail Commission announced earlier this week that it’s distributing more than $2 million in federal funding to cities in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to construct and improve train stations. A portion of the money will be used to begin designing a passenger train terminal in Baton Rouge.

    The city-parish earlier this year approved a match for the design phase. 

    Gov. John Bel Edwards said today at a year-end press conference he is still optimistic about that and other transportation projects, even as the state grapples with an expected midyear budget shortfall of at least $300 million. The state would likely have to put up dollars for the project, as well as find federal matching funds.

    Edwards got behind the commuter rail proposal early in his campaign for governor, promising to seek the federal funds former Gov. Bobby Jindal declined for the project during his tenure.

    “We’re not putting (commuter rail) or any transportation or infrastructure project on the backburner,” Edwards said today, noting President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to spend heavily on infrastructure. “We are already communicating with (Trump’s transition team) to make sure we highlight these projects in Louisiana that we think are great candidates for what they’re trying to do.”

    The Associated Press reported today it is unclear if Trump will go forth with his infrastructure spending plan. Lobbyists are fearing Trump will back off his campaign promises to invest heavily in infrastructure, a position at odds with many members of his own party.

    The Baton Rouge to New Orleans passenger train would take anywhere from three to five years to complete once the cities and state find the money and decide to move forward, says Baton Rouge Area Foundation Executive Vice President John Spain.

    BRAF has long been a proponent of the project, and Spain says it could have been completed by now had Jindal accepted federal money for the project when he was in office.

    Spain cited hurdles like expensive capital improvements to the current rail line to make it compatible with a high-speed commuter train. Some parts of the railroad currently can only bear 10 miles per hour train cars.

    But the benefits of a commuter rail, Spain says, outweigh the cost of the project, which would have to be heavily subsidized initially.

    “It’s going to Saints games, it’s going to dinners, it’s going to business,” Spain says. “People go back and forth between Baton Rouge and New Orleans every day.”

    —Sam Karlin

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