Is Nicholson tram project dead? No, but future bleak as city opts not to apply for federal funding

    The city-parish will miss the September deadline to apply for federal funding for the proposed 3.4-mile tram between LSU and downtown, throwing into question the future of the project.

    Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Rowdy Gaudet says Mayor Sharon Weston Broome wants to continue to study the streetcar project, which was championed by former Mayor Kip Holden’s administration and represented the New Urbanist vision for inner city redevelopment but has never been embraced by the new mayor.

    “It’s still a project that is under consideration,” Gaudet says. “But the mayor felt like we needed to study it a lot more … if we’re going to proceed forward with it.”

    This will be the second year the city-parish has let the application deadline for the federal funding lapse. Last year, city officials decided to defer applying for one year because they wanted to spend more time buffing up their application in hopes of clinching the $67.5 million, which would fund about 50% of the proposed project.

    But the project has increasingly come under fire from opponents in economically depressed north Baton Rouge, who resent the investment of public money in south Baton Rouge, as well as from critics in the southeastern portion of the parish, who point to the project as an example of government waste.

    Earlier this year, when a routine funding matter came before the Metro Council, Broome said she needed more time to study the plan and the council deferred taking any action. The project has effectively sat on hold since then, and Gaudet says in order to make the September deadline the application would have had to be completed earlier this month, which, obviously didn’t happen.

    “We will look at applying in September of next year—if we are going to do anything,” he says.

    In theory, deferring the application until September 2018 would mean the project—if approved by the Federal Transit Administration—would not receive funding until 2019, and realistically wouldn’t become a reality before 2023 at the earliest.

    As a practical matter, however, it would likely be much later than 2023. That’s in part because one of the biggest challenges with the project locally is determining where the other 50% of the money for the project would come from. Initial plans called for creation of a taxing district that would affect property owners along Nicholson Drive and, potentially, downtown.

    Gaudet says among the issues Broome wants to study is what the impact of a taxing district would be. Also, he says the mayor still wants to explore the idea of expanding the proposed tram beyond downtown, possibly as far north as Southern University—an interest she expressed earlier this year that has not gone anywhere yet.

    Additionally, Gaudet says, “there is no anchor economic development project hinging on this, so it’s not something that needs to be done right away.”

    While technically true, the Water Campus, currently under development between Nicholson Drive and River Road, was expected to benefit from the tram and also to contribute to its ridership. Gaudet says “it was never communicated” to the administration that the tram would create a surge of investment at the Water Campus.

    Baton Rouge Area Foundation President and CEO John Davies, who has spearheaded development of the Water Campus and championed the tram, declines to comment.

    Finally, Gaudet says as the mayor travels around the parish to drum up support for her proposed 5-mill property tax to fund road and infrastructure improvements, she’s not hearing much demand or support for the project.

    “There has not been any overwhelming feedback that this is the project that has to be done,” Gaudet says. “So it is absolutely on her radar but I don’t think it’s something we’re saying we’ve got to put a hustle on it.”

    —Stephanie Riegel

     

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