Biden infrastructure plan offers hope for Baton Rouge-NOLA commuter rail

Local economic development leaders are applauding the inclusion of $80 billion in President Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package to expand passenger rail service around the country, as it could be the first step toward funding a long-sought commuter rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Though Biden’s American Jobs Plan, released Wednesday, does not specifically list the new routes that would be funded, the bill contains language about the importance of funding new commuter lines between “city pairs,” such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Meanwhile, Amtrak unveiled a map Wednesday showing its plans to expand routes to up to 160 communities over the next 15 years that includes the New Orleans-Baton Rouge link.

Taken together, the funding in the bill and the new map are the most hopeful signs yet that commuter rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which ended in 1969, could again become a reality, says Baton Rouge Area Foundation Executive Vice President John Spain, who has spearheaded local efforts over the past decade to revive passenger rail service between the state’s two largest cities.

“It’s a very exciting day,” Spain says. “That doesn’t mean they’ll start tomorrow but it does mean a potential funding source has been identified and in Amtrak’s plan, Baton Rouge-New Orleans is on the list.”

While the development is a huge boost for the project, there’s still a long way to go. For starters, the Biden bill is already controversial in a divided Congress. Then, even if it passes with the $80 billion for rail intact, Louisiana would have to apply for the funding for the Baton Rouge-New Orleans expansion.

Based on a 2014 study, infrastructure improvements alone would cost some $300 million-$400 million for the new commuter line.

But local economic development leaders with the South Louisiana Super Region Committee are optimistic.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” says Erin Monroe Wesley, who currently chairs the SoLa. “We know that commuter patterns, traffic problems, and competitiveness for business and talent all make the case for passenger rail in the SoLA Super Region.” 

Passenger rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has been studied extensively. According to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, a poll conducted of 1,050 registered voters in Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Orleans, St. James, and St. John Parishes in February and March of 2019 found that 75% of people felt positively toward the passenger rail, with 63% stating interest in riding it.

“For the Baton Rouge area, this is a massive opportunity to amplify our scale to the world, linking the workforces and populations of Louisiana’s two largest regions into a 2 million-person super region,” BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp says. “Plus, who doesn’t want access to sports, restaurants, and great hospitality in both incredible markets.”