Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans passenger rail not derailed by gas tax failure

    Louisiana officials say the failed gas tax increase that would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects has not derailed a long-discussed passenger train service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

    But the project remains in the earliest of planning stages, and the state and local governments will have to find millions of dollars at a time of great uncertainty for financing such projects.

    The federal government will likely cover most of the roughly $260 million price tag, says Shawn Wilson, Department of Transportation and Development secretary, while locals and public-private partnerships are expected to pick up some of the slack. According to a 2014 study, the service would also command an annual net operating cost of almost $7 million.

    The state will put up some money of its own, he says, but is mostly responsible for coordinating the project. Of the $510 million a 17-cent gas tax hike would have raised, only $30 million would have gone to multimodal transportation—which includes rail service.

    “We will continue to try and work to deliver it,” Wilson says, adding it could take longer to find the funding now that the gas tax hike failed. “It would be unfair to say this initiative relies solely on the state.”

    But before the state even embarks on the difficult search for funding—which is technically the first step—officials must strike a deal with the Kansas City Southern Railway Company and Amtrak to authorize the project. The state has made some progress in convincing them the service will be worthwhile, says Tommy Clark, commissioner of the state Office of Multimodal Commerce, largely because the state is highlighting how capital improvements to the rail line would help freight transportation as well.

    “We’re just at the baby steps of having those dialogues,” he says. “There are so many milestones that have to happen before even one train moves.”

    Advocates have long argued a passenger rail service—with stops in Baton Rouge, Gonzales, Laplace, the New Orleans airport, Jefferson and Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans—would catalyze economic development in the “super region,” as well as alleviate traffic congestion on I-10.

    The service would run along existing freight railroads, meaning much of the money needed would be spent on repairing and bolstering the lines to make them suitable for high-speed service. Even if everything moves forward according to plan, it will be years before a train carrying passengers runs between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

    The Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority received a $250,000 grant from the federal government several months ago to design a train station for the project, and the city-parish put up matching funds. RDA CEO Gwen Hamilton says she will issue a request for proposals in the next two months.

    “I am encouraged here at the RDA the fact that the grant has act been awarded and we can actually start with the planning,” Hamilton says. “That’s a step forward.”

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