The engineering firm hired to design the stations for a New Orleans to Baton Rouge passenger rail held stakeholder meetings this week downtown and in the health district, diving into the specifics of how to integrate the rail with other forms of transit and spur economic development.
HNTB, which landed a $450,000 city-parish contract to come up with conceptual designs for two train stations in Baton Rouge, is now in the “listening and data-gathering phase,” says Bryan Jones, HNTB’s Gulf Coast District Deputy Office Leader.
The stakeholder meetings—which included local officials and leaders of neighborhood associations—as well as a steering committee meeting, also held this week, kicked off discussions over how to best integrate the two proposed rail stations with the Capital Area Transit System, ride-hailing services and bike programs, like the nascent Bike Share. The groups also began discussing in greater detail where exactly the rail stations would go.
“If the passengers can’t get from a train station to their final destination, it’s not as advantageous for anyone to use it,” Jones says.
HNTB will hold a public meeting this spring to present preliminary ideas, and again toward the end of its eight-month task to present final plans.
Left unanswered, however, is who will pay the tab for passenger rail? The project, long pushed by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, has come under criticism from many of the same people who oppose the BRAF-backed Nicholson Corridor streetcar. The failure of last year’s gas tax didn’t necessarily derail the rail project, and Jones says HNTB will look at the funding picture as part of its contract.
In other places that instituted passenger rail lines, cities use a combination of TIFs, federal grants, public-private partnerships and state and local sources to pay for them. Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson previously said the state would be more of a coordinator of the project and less of a main financial backer.
Part of the discussions around where to put the rail stations and when the trains would run centered around moving people who work at the Baton Rouge Health District from the planned Ascension Parish stop to work each day. The train would initially run twice a day.
The Baton Rouge terminus for the rail would be in the downtown east-Mid City area, near the Electric Depot development. Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, says there are discussions of integrating with a CATS hub near the station.
“I left really pumped up about what this can do,” Rhorer says of the steering committee meeting. “Transit hubs can be a huge driver for economic development.”