Riegel: Why the tram went off the rails


If there’s anything on which the mostly white Republicans in the southeast portion of East Baton Rouge Parish and the mostly African-American Democrats in north Baton Rouge can finally agree it’s disdain for the proposed 3.4-mile tram that would link LSU to downtown along Nicholson Drive.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s recent decision to postpone for at least another year—and, perhaps, forever—applying for $67.5 million in federal funds to help develop the project was, arguably, the most popular move of her eight months in office.

Broome insists she’s not pulling the plug on the tram, which has been more than four years in the works and has a price tag of an estimated $150 million. She says she merely needs more time to study it, and explore ways to expand it into north Baton Rouge or incorporate it into a larger transportation master plan.

But the consensus among some of the key players who have been following the project since its inception is that TramLink BR, if not dead, is on life support.

The new administration has never really embraced the project. It was the brainchild of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, and was championed by Broome’s predecessor, Mayor Kip Holden, who, in his later years in office, shared BRAF’s New Urbanist vision for the city.

They hate the tram—in part because it represents to them the arrogance of the downtown elite crowd, but especially because it epitomizes the waste and folly of government, which they do not trust in the first place.

Broome does not share that vision. Nor do a good chunk of conservative, white taxpayers in suburban Baton Rouge. They hate the tram—in part because it represents to them the arrogance of the downtown elite crowd, but especially because it epitomizes the waste and folly of government, which they do not trust in the first place.

Of course, Broome isn’t putting the brakes on the tram to appease those voters, who supported her opponent in last fall’s election anyway. Rather, she’s doing it to satisfy her supporters in north Baton Rouge. They, too, dislike the tram because it would be a huge investment of public dollars in south Baton Rouge at a time when there is so much need in economically depressed north Baton Rouge.

Ironically, the group that has been most supportive of the tram is that of moderate progressives—the swing voters, who tipped the scales in Broome’s favor in last fall’s tight mayoral race. Those Mid City-Garden District-downtown dwellers advocate passionately for bike lanes, sidewalks and more sustainable communities. They’re the ones who would have gone out of their way to use the tram—just to make a point, if nothing else.

Perhaps one day they’ll get to. But it won’t be any time soon. A modern streetcar on Nicholson Drive is seven years away at the earliest.

It’s easy to dish on the tram for a couple of reasons. First, even if the feds were to approve the $67.5 million in funding—money, by the way, that couldn’t be used to address some other more pressing infrastructure needs—the community would still have to come up with another $68 million or more on its own.

That’s a lot of money, and it’s not at all clear where it would come from. A taxing district is the idea that’s generally been floated. But the taxpayers and property owners who would be gerrymandered into the district were never brought into the loop, so it’s not at all clear what, if anything, they’d be willing to support.

What’s more, it’s unclear how much demand exists for such a transit system between downtown and LSU. Broome says she’s waiting to see data from consulting firm HNTB, which conducted a ridership survey earlier this year. Until we know whether enough people will really ride the tram to make it viable, it is worth $140 million?

The project was never supposed to be about just providing public transit. Rather, it was to be an economic development catalyst that would spur reinvestment along Nicholson Drive, which was and could again be one of the great thoroughfares in the city-parish.

It’s an important question to ask, but there are several reasons why it’s worth keeping the tram idea alive. For one, the project was never supposed to be about just providing public transit. Rather, it was to be an economic development catalyst that would spur reinvestment along Nicholson Drive, which was and could again be one of the great thoroughfares in the city-parish.

It will take decades to bring back that corridor, but the eventual spillover into Old South Baton Rouge could be transformational, if done right. The Water Campus, which would benefit from and contribute to the tram’s ridership, is one catalyst to jump start the process. The tram could be another.

It’s also important to remember this tram project was to be the first, it was hoped, of several legs of a streetcar line. It was to be a pilot program that would show how connectivity and public transit can actually work in Baton Rouge, as it has in other cities that have invested in modern streetcars.

Perhaps most importantly the tram would be a real step in moving Baton Rouge forward as a progressive community that offers the kinds of amenities that attract young professionals and big companies, which are the rising tide that lifts all ships. It would be the kind of system other cities have that we envy. It’s worth giving careful consideration, despite some inherent challenges.

Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso says it’s a great idea but one Baton Rouge cannot afford.

Perhaps the more relevant question is can Baton Rouge not afford it?

Read previous columns and stories from Stephanie Riegel

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