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Plans still shaky for Baton Rouge to New Orleans passenger rail

Gov. John Bel Edwards and Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson walk alongside a passenger train in New Orleans on April 23, 2022. (Governor’s Office photo)
Gov. John Bel Edwards and Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson walk alongside a passenger train in New Orleans on April 23, 2022. (Governor’s Office photo)

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has about two weeks left to draft its initial plans for a proposed passenger rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Act 764, which lawmakers passed last year, calls for DOTD to prepare the scope, schedule and budget to secure all necessary approvals and permits to begin the passenger rail service. The act further states DOTD shall provide those plans to the legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee before the April 10 start of the 2023 regular session.

The Joint Transportation Committee met Monday but did not have the rail project on its agenda and seemed to be mostly unaware of the looming deadline. DOTD Secretary Eric Kalivoda spent most of the meeting presenting updates on other projects, such as the Interstate 10 widening in Baton Rouge.

It wasn’t until members of the Sierra Club mentioned the deadline in their testimony that some lawmakers learned the committee would have to meet again before the session opens in 19 days.

Sierra Club members read off a list of questions and concerns about the rail project.

“Behind the scenes, we’re just not seeing the movement we would expect,” said Angelle Bradford, a volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Delta chapter.

Joint Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington, asked DOTD officials to help him review video of Monday’s testimony to make note of information the Sierra Club requested. McMath said he wanted to “see if we can’t address every single item for that next meeting that we are now apparently having.”

DOTD officials told lawmakers they were planning to file a request later that day to have the committee meeting scheduled.

When some lawmakers asked about the rail proposal earlier during Monday’s hearing, Kalivoda said many major details still need to be settled. The state is conducting an environmental study that likely won’t be completed until the end of the year, he added.

Last week, federal regulators approved a long-awaited merger of the Kansas City Southern and Canadian Pacific freight rail companies, now known as Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC). CPKC owns the freight track between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Some have envisioned the project as a European-style commuter train that can transport people back and forth to work multiple times a day using clean fuels and modern innovations, all in an effort to reduce traffic congestion on I-10.

Even the Louisiana Legislature declared through Act 764 that “Now is the ideal time to explore the opportunity to electrify passenger rail.”

But the ideas that officials have so far floated are less innovative and more dated.

The project could turn out to be a standard intercity Amtrak line, like ones that already run through New Orleans. So far, Amtrak has been the only name state officials have mentioned in discussions about who might provide and operate the trains.

Even the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which approved the CPKC merger, mentioned the New Orleans-Baton Rouge proposal as an Amtrak project in its press release.

Amtrak, however, doesn’t operate any commuter rail lines; it only offers intercity and longer range trips.

Officials want to use CPKC’s existing freight track instead of spending money to build a new line dedicated to passenger rail, and the company has so far agreed to at least one round-trip per day — insufficient for commuter service.

“If we’re going to have a successful commuter rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans … one or two trains is not going to do it,” Kalivoda told the committee. “You’re going to have to have more operations than that.”

He also said the state needs to have a long-term guarantee of rail service in place for at least 20 or 30 years in order to attract real estate investment along the line. Development around the stations is necessary to establish it as a true commuter rail .

“It can’t be hanging on a thread on annual budget allocations about whether you’re going to continue service or not,” Kalivoda said. “Real estate developers are not going to invest money under that kind of an operation.”

The biggest challenge will be subsidizing long-term service, because ticket sales won’t be enough to cover the operating costs, he said.

“The novelty part will wear off very quickly,” Kalivoda said. “Everybody’s going to want to ride the train at first, but the novelty part goes quickly … Are you going to have service that’ll support that long-term ridership so people can use it for business and for job access?”

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.