During the administration of New Orleans Mayor Sydney Barthelemy, one of the oft-discussed priorities was to establish rail service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. That was in the late 1980s.
A few years later, a seven-parish economic development cooperative called Metrovision unveiled its plans to stimulate growth in the region. Among the organization’s goals was to establish mass transit between New Orleans, the northshore and the River Parishes. The year was 1991.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in late 2005 the issue resurfaced. With increased traffic and commerce between the state’s two biggest cities?not to mention the growth along the 10/12 corridor?elected officials and planning groups renewed their calls for a rail line linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
But at the dawn of 2009, those plans and studies continue to collect dust while the cities and exurbs that dot the so-called Creative Corridor along Interstates 10 and 12 remain disconnected. Indeed, creating a mass transit system for south Louisiana is as elusive as reforming public education or building a regional airport.
Why has it been so difficult?
There are several reasons, including money, political parochialism and a sparser population density than is needed to generate sufficient demand for a mass transit system. Some skeptics will argue there’s no possible justification for a mass transit system in an area that has but a fraction of the population density of New York or Los Angeles.
That may be but several recent developments suggest the tide may finally be turning in favor of those who have long toiled to create a mass transit system in south Louisiana. They include:
:: A federally funded feasibility study that is examining what it would take to build a rail system between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
:: A planning process in the works in Baton Rouge to create an electric rail system that would link the capital with outlying suburban communities.
:: A commuter bus called LA Swift that has been running multiple trips a day between Baton Rouge and New Orleans since late 2005 and is one of the greatest transportation success stories Louisiana has had in years. Advocates of the system say it may help generate enough interest in regional mass transit to ultimately warrant the creation of something bigger.
“It’s proven very popular,” says Col. Tom Atkinson, who’s in charge of intermodal transportation at the La. Department of Transportation and Development. “It shows what we can do here when we put our minds to it.”
Despite all the talk about mass transit, people who use the term aren’t always referring to the same sort of system. Though mass transit includes busses?like the LA Swift?and ferries, most think of it in terms of rail service. Even then, there’s rapid transit, which is an electric passenger railway that runs in urban areas; commuter rail, which runs between cities and outlying areas on existing tracks; and high-speed rail, which offers long-distance rail journeys at very high speeds. Louisiana has none of the above.
A big part of the reason is money, or lack thereof. High-speed rail is almost prohibitively expensive. Consider the situation in California, which just last fall approved a bond issue to begin construction of a high-speed rail system. The project has been on the drawing board for the better part of three decades and the price tag is a whopping $10 billion – and that’s just for starters.
Creation of a commuter rail system that runs on existing rail lines between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and travels at a regular 79 miles per hour?fast, but not ‘high speed”?would be considerably less, though still quite pricey. Estimates put the initial capital investment at upwards of $100 million, and that would cover only the cost of refurbishing the rails. What’s more, most of the money would go towards repairing a two-mile section of the railroad bridge on the Bonnet Carré spillway. Estimates for annual operating expenses are anyone’s guess.
Even a small-scale light-rail system for the metro-Baton Rouge region would cost somewhere between $50 million and $70 million. Plans are in the works to secure funding for such a system, but it’s still several years away and will likely cost a lot more than that before it’s ever implemented.
In a state that is predominantly rural and strapped with failing public schools, a crippled public health care system, and unfunded liabilities like the retirement system, where’s the extra money for a mass transit system that is of questionable need?
“It takes a lot to support these kinds of projects,” says R.J. Goebel, director of planning for the five-parish Capital Region Planning Commission. “In Baton Rouge, for instance, it’s been over 50 years since we were willing to pass any sort of tax for road improvements or mass transit.”
Political parochialism hasn’t helped. Though the state has made exponential progress since Katrina in recognizing the need to forge regional alliances, traditionally the parishes and metro areas along the corridor have worked at cross-purposes. Until recently, they would bring to the legislature competing agendas.
Creating a mass transit system requires every bit of regional cooperation a state can muster. Going back to the California situation, consider that it took the state 30 years to agree on the basics of what kind of system should be constructed. Even now, with the bond issue behind them, municipalities up and down the Pacific Coast continue to butt heads over the specifics of the project.
“They’re still fighting over alignments and which cities are going to get stops,” says Eric D. Shaw, the newly installed director of community planning for the Louisiana Recovery Authority who recently moved here from California. “That process has been going on forever and a day?and that’s in a state that’s considered progressive.”
Then there’s the fact that to create a mass transit system, there must be demand, and the population density along the corridor?though it’s the fastest growing in Louisiana?has traditionally been insufficient to warrant the creation of a rail system. Including metro New Orleans, now considered part of the corridor, the population of the region tops 2.3 million and includes more than half of all the state’s residents. That’s impressive in one respect. But it’s still a relatively small number when you consider that Dallas-Ft. Worth has 6 million residents and metro Houston has 5.6 million.
And even in those cities, mass transit doesn’t necessarily make economic sense, according to skeptics. Wendell Cox is an Illinois-based expert on mass transit and population statistics. He has studied the numbers, and argues that mass transit only works in urban areas with a high concentration of people working in a downtown area. Because rail systems are typically linear, a majority of passengers using the system need to travel in one direction or another in order to make the system financially viable.
But in New Orleans, for instance, only 20% of the area’s population worked downtown before Katrina, which is actually more than the national average. Though post-Katrina figures are not available, it’s likely that number would be even lower now.
“That means at least 80% of the employment market is not even in the cards of your potential ridership,” Cox says. “How is it worth it for them to take a train?”
What’s more, the population density of metro New Orleans was only about 4,000 pre-Katrina and in Baton Rouge it’s around 2,000, according to Cox. That’s compared to 26,000 in New York City and some 50,000 in Hong Kong, a city where mass transit it not only viable but critically important.
Then there’s the fact that mass transit is an attractive alternative to driving in very congested cities like New York. Commute times in and between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, however, are relatively short, even though they may not seem so.
“Any idea of putting mass transit along the I-12 corridor is delusional,” Cox says. “You’re looking at an investment every year that is going to exceed the gross income of the area.”
Cox is an admitted skeptic. Others insist mass transit could increase commerce along the corridor, spur economic development and make it a more attractive place for people to live and work. All of which are why fledgling efforts under way to develop some type of mass transit system along the busiest segments of the corridor.
Chief among them is the Southern High Speed Rail Commission, a tri-state agency that was formed in the 1980s to promote passenger rail service between Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The entity has been around for more than two decades, and is technically misnamed, as most of its efforts so far have been focused on creating passenger rail service on existing?not special, high-speed?rail lines. In any case, since Katrina, the agency has received renewed attention and has sharpened its focus.
Late last summer, it received a $667,000 grant from the Federal Railroad Administration to study linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans. With matching funds from the state, the study will examine the capital and operating costs of creating and implementing such a system along existing Kansas City Southern rails. It will include an environmental impact assessment, as well as a business and implementation plan, the latter of which will estimate ridership and fare-box recovery rate, or the percentage of operating costs that are recovered at the fare box.
The study is due to be completed in April?just in time for the spring legislative session. How far it will go from there is anyone’s guess. Transportation Secretary William Ankner is expected to push for it, but the Jindal administration has so many pressing priorities, commuter rail will face an uphill battle?even if the feasibility study paints an optimistic picture of the promise it holds for the state.
One argument proponents will make is that the rail service could double as an emergency evacuation tool. Prior to Hurricane Gustav last September, more than 2,000 New Orleans-area residents were evacuated to the Memphis area on rail lines.
“A lot of people were not even aware of that,” says Atkinson, who besides his position at DOTD is a board member on the High Speed Rail Commission. “If we had our own equipment in the state and didn’t have to rely on Amtrak to help us we could have evacuated ten times as many people. This would be a huge benefit for us every time there is an emergency situation.”
A smaller scale type of commuter rail system for metro Baton Rouge and its exurbs is also in the planning stages. The Capital Region Planning Commission (CRPC) and East Baton Rouge Parish are securing funds to study the feasibility of creating a commuter system that uses rubber-tire vehicles. They’re ideal for shorter distances and would theoretically ferry commuters between Livingston, Ascension and East Baton Rouge parish.
Such a system is appealing because it’s less expensive than the type of rail system because discussed for the New Orleans-to-Baton Rouge route. Implementation would cost somewhere between $50 million and $70 million, a figure that metro-parish leaders have said is doable.
Still, those figures are very preliminary. An RFP has only recently been issued to do a feasibility study and comprehensive operations analysis.
“Things won’t really be able to fall into place until those are completed,” says Goebel at the CRPC.
Perhaps the most realistic hope for mass transit is one that is already in place and has established itself as a proven success. It’s the LA Swift commuter bus that runs daily service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Created in the wake of Katrina more than three years ago, the service was initiated by the state DOTD and funded with FEMA dollars. Though the federal funding dried up in late 2007, the service was so popular the state teamed up with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. They contracted out the service and began charging $6 for a one-way ticket.
Today, the LA Swift busses make more than 100 trips a week and transports an average of 400 passengers a day. It leaves from two locations in Baton Rouge?the C.A.T.S. terminal on Government Street and the Home Depot parking lot on Highland Road?and terminates at two stops in Metairie and New Orleans. Along the way, it picks up additional passengers and Gonzales, Sorrento and Laplace.
What differentiates LA Swift from previous bus services between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is that it is designed to accommodate the professional commuter. All busses are equipped with satellite TV, which stay tuned to cable news channels, and have high-speed internet connections. “I will put it against any commercial, inter-city bus service in America,” Atkinson says. “The drivers are very courteous. It’s clean, pristine and it’s like new.”
Last fall, the service updated its fare-box systems. Now, it’s trying to identify more park-and-ride locations and also upgrade its marketing efforts, the latter of which is critical. LA Swift has earned rave reviews?but only from those who have tried it. Convincing creatures of habit accustomed to driving to take public transit instead is no small thing.
“We need to do a better job in marketing the service,” Atkinson says. “We’ve done some but it’s very expensive and we’re trying to change a culture. It’s not easy.”
Which, in the end, may be one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in creating a mass transit system. The same attitudes that keep commuters from taking a test ride on the LA Swift likely will make them wary about riding a train. If the state is really serious about mass transit, it needs to change a mindset?and that could take a long time.
“The reality is that a mass transit system may not be up in three years but we still have to be thinking about it now,” says Shaw at the LRA. “We have to start thinking about our plans and how we’re going to emphasize growth in our communities because that process could take 30 years.”