BRAC policy statement supports passenger rail service from Baton Rouge to New Orleans

The Advocate

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber is pouncing on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ repeated support for commuter rail service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge by using commuter patterns, traffic problems and the state’s fiscal woes to make the case.

Much of the estimated $260 million price tag could be funded by federal dollars, BRAC said in a policy statement issued Tuesday. That would be far cheaper than the $1.2 billion the state estimates is needed to expand Interstate 10 from Highland Road in Baton Rouge to Loyola Drive in Kenner.

“A passenger rail line can better connect the super-region’s 1.4 million people, along with nearly half of the state’s jobs, at just over 20 percent of the cost of highway expansion,” the report said.

The report said rail service would open up job opportunities across the region for those without cars; help save transportation costs for others; link people to health care services in Baton Rouge and New Orleans; and support tourism.

“New research demonstrating the economic interconnectivity of southeast Louisiana, congestion issues growing worse due to rapid economic expansion and Louisiana’s fiscal state make rail restoration the responsible option,” BRAC said. “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.”

Census data show that more than 58,000 people commuted between the two metropolitan areas in 2013, accounting for 7 percent of the region’s workforce. That’s an 11.4 percent increase in commuters since 2010 that is nearly four times the rate of population growth over that same period in the region.

The report also notes that 19,000 commuters travel from Ascension Parish to East Baton Rouge Parish for work and points out that Ascension already has a site set aside for a commuter rail station — reflecting local support for the service.

The report said rail service would benefit commuters who don’t own a car or who want to save money on transportation — potentially $6,800, according to Southern Rail Commission data. The report said the most recent census data showed more than 32,000 workers in the region do not have access to a vehicle.

Rail service also would provide a link to health care services between the two metropolitan areas, particularly institutions like the Veterans Affairs hospital in New Orleans, which provides care for both regions.

BRAC backed up its statements with figures from LA SWIFT, a Baton Rouge to New Orleans bus service that had linked workers to jobs in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

A survey of LA SWIFT riders in 2013 revealed that one-third of its ridership came from households without a car, making the service “essential to accessing their jobs.” More than half of LA SWIFT’s ridership came from commuters getting to jobs in industries vital to the southeast Louisiana economy, including health care, construction and hospitality, the chamber report said. Also, 14 percent of LA SWIFT riders used the service to access health care through institutions like the VA hospital.

The report said rail service could boost tourism by providing easy transportation to and from athletic events, festivals and cultural centers throughout the year.

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