Business Report

Southeast Louisiana’s rapid economic development, commuter patterns and the state’s harsh fiscal realities make the re-establishment of Baton Rouge-New Orleans passenger rail service a reasonable option, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber says in a four-page public policy commentary released this morning.

The commentary comes on the heels of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ reiterating in March that he wants to make Louisiana a leader in reintroducing passenger rail service to the Gulf Coast.

“We’re not expecting this to rise above the immediate fiscal concerns that they’re dealing with now,” says Logan Anderson, BRAC policy and research project manager and author of the commentary. “But we’re certainly hoping to dispel the opposition and some of the questions folks have.”

According to a report from the Southern Rail Commission—which last September released a five-step plan to guide Louisiana’s governor to bring the rail service to fruition—the proposed rail would connect a roughly 80-mile corridor and serve an estimated 210,000 riders per year.

Generally, there’s been broad public support for re-establishing passenger rail service. The last time a passenger train ran between the two cities was in 1969, but funding—more specifically the lack of funding—has been an issue.

A feasibility study released in 2014 pegged the cost of capital improvements needed to establish the service at $262.4 million.

“However, much of this could be funded by federal dollars, and a look at the alternative makes it clear that rail is comparably very feasible,” reads the commentary, which notes the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has estimated it would cost $1.2 billion to expand Interstate 10 from Highland Road in Baton Rouge to Loyola Drive in Kenner.

BRAC argues that re-establishing the passenger rail line could help alleviate interstate congestion, boost economic development and provide a more affordable option for those who commute between the two cities for work.

The chamber points to U.S. Census data that shows 58,000 commuters—roughly 7% of the entire regional workforce—were traveling between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in 2013, an 11.4% increase over the number of commuters in 2010.

“Intra-regional commuters also would be well-served by the proposed line,” BRAC says, noting more than 19,000 commuters traveling from Ascension to East Baton Rouge Parish for work.

Passenger rail service would also open up employment opportunities to some 32,000 workers in the region who do not have access to a vehicle. BRAC argues the point is substantiated by a survey of riders of the now-defunct LA Swift bus, which began after Hurricane Katrina and was taken out of service in 2013.

“More than half of SWIFT’s ridership came from commuters getting to jobs in industries vital to the southeast Louisiana economy, including healthcare, construction, hospitality and others,” BRAC says. The chamber also says the current infrastructure cannot accommodate the number of daily commuters and the volume of freight moving through the industry region, both of which are only expected to grow.

“Those who travel this route regularly know that the strained road network is barely able to handle current demand, and the already long trip from one metro to the other can easily double in length on days with inclement weather or traffic accidents.”