Feds give approval for Baton Rouge streetcar project to move forward

Baton Rouge’s proposed modern streetcar line along Nicholson Drive received a key approval July 29 from the Federal Transit Administration, when the agency ruled the project would have no significant environmental impact on the area.

The “Finding of No Significant Impact,” or FONSI, clears the way for the project to move from the planning phase to the project development stage, which includes design and construction, according to Ashley Booth, national streetcar practice leader for HNTB, which is working with the city of Baton Rouge on the project.

“We are through the crawling phase,” Booth said in a speech today to the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge. “Now we are fully walking. Hopefully, soon we’ll be running.”

Shortly before his lunchtime speech, Booth had been meeting at City Hall with city leaders and regional representatives from the Fort Worth, Texas, office of the FTA. The federal staffers were in town to learn more about the project, which will link LSU to downtown and, it is hoped, spur economic development along the Nicholson Corridor.

The regional FTA office will have a strong influence over whether the Washington, D.C., office ultimately funds the project, which is expected to cost a total of some $170 million. Baton Rouge is looking to the federal government to fund some $67.5 million of that total cost.

City leaders are finalizing the application for the federal grant this month and will submit it to the FTA in early September, Booth says. A decision is expected in early 2017. If Baton Rouge doesn’t get the grant money this time around, it can reapply next year for funding in 2018. In the meantime, however, Booth is confident that the feds are enthusiastic about the local project, called TramLinkBR.

“We are very confident,” he says. “We are scoring mid to mid-high in our analysis of the metrics the FTA uses to evaluate these projects during the grant process, so that is where we need to be.”

Also encouraging, he says, was the Metro Council’s June 23 vote to allocate some $10 million to the project. Those funds will keep the design of the project underway for the next year.

“It is important to show to the federal government that there is local support for the project,” he says.

In order for TramLinkBR to become a reality, local funding will also be needed to pay for about half the project. Booth says plans are in the works to create a special taxing district, though details are still sketchy. A measure creating the district could go before the Metro Council in mid-2017.

If federal funding for the project is approved early next year, the streetcar could be operational by mid-2021.

—Stephanie Riegel

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