Poll shows wide support for Baton Rouge to New Orleans passenger rail

    In an effort to inspire progress on the long-proposed Baton Rouge-New Orleans passenger rail, several entities this afternoon touted new poll results showing widespread support for the $262 million project.

    The Southern Rail Commission, Baton Rouge Area Chamber and GNO, Inc. commissioned LJR Custom Strategies to conduct the poll, which included 1,050 respondents who were contacted between Feb. 28 and March 10. The strategic consulting firm, which has offices in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., surveyed registered voters in Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Orleans, St. James and St. John parishes.

    Altogether, 85% of respondents say it’s either important (45%) or very important (40%) to have an intercity rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The poll also found that 63% said they would use the train, and more than 80% supported the state including the passenger rail in the transportation options they currently provide, along with highways and airports.

    Assuming the project gets a federal match, 79% of residents said they would support using state funds to match the federal funds.

    Finding those dollars, however, has proven difficult. John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, says Congress is still in the process of appropriating Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements, or CRISI, funds for this year. But whether the passenger rail will see any of those dollars remains uncertain until this summer.

    For operating expenses, Spain says they’re looking at a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration that would pay 80% of the operating costs for the first year, 60% in year two and 40% in year three. Another potential funding source, he says, is the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, which currently has $39 billion, offers interest rates of 2.8% and allows local entities to pay it off over 35 years after a five-year grace period.

    Moreover, some of the proposed stations are in Qualified Opportunity Zones, making them eligible for tax credits.

    Less concrete is where state and local match dollars will come from. Furthermore, the project needs the blessing of Kansas City Southern, which owns the majority of the line—and that, in itself, still has a way to go.

    “Where I think we are today, and what needs to happen, is that we need to have the state designate experts who actually take the work that’s already been done off the shelf,” says Spain, “and build a financial model to identify the funding sources—local, state and federal—to make this happen.”

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