Lanny Keller: A new commuter line makes sense for Baton Rouge to Crescent City
The above headline is wrong, if you talk to people in the transportation funding world. The “commuter” part that is, not the making-sense part.
That’s because cobbling together funding for the passenger train service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is dependent on the rules of various federal programs. Intercity rail is a different category, apparently, than “commuter” rail.
But one of the dirty secrets of Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans intercity rails is that they would be a commuter line.
The substantial number of commuters already driving between the capital city and the Crescent City is growing, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber reports in a new study of the issue.
There is, of course, the issue of hurricane evacuation: “In light of the many thousands of southeast Louisiana residents without reliable access to a personal vehicle, and the lessons learned from (hurricane) Katrina and other recent disasters, resiliency is a critically important part of any conversation on infrastructure, and one that a rail line is uniquely qualified to address.”
But it is traveling to jobs every day, not such extraordinary events, that is most salient in the BRAC report.
“The Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas, and the river region that connects them, are experiencing an unprecedented $20 billion boom in private investment, primarily in industrial sectors,” BRAC said in the report. “Even with the decline in oil prices, these multibillion dollar industrial expansions are largely continuing as planned, particularly in south Louisiana.”
Analyst Logan Anderson, of BRAC, wrote that the volume of passengers and freight “simply cannot be effectively accommodated by current infrastructure.”
The report lists a set of case studies of rail lines that generate significant economic activity along the transportation corridors served. That “great deal of well-documented evidence” of the boost to economic development is difficult to ignore, but it is on the minds of public officials in the parishes along the Mississippi River’s east bank.
But the more urgent need, BRAC’s report said, is “simply accommodating the development that is already in the works.”
In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the business leadership are aware of the jobs in the booming industrial corridor, and the need to hook up the “super region” of the two cities.
The BRAC report said workforce demands would fuel ridership: “According to the most recent Census data available, more than 32,000 workers in the super-region do not have access to a vehicle, meaning that intercity rail would provide access to additional employment opportunities for tens of thousands of workers.”
It is cheaper than owning and maintaining a car to use the train, but this option is often dismissed by people at both ends of the proposed passenger rail system. Those who have lived in cities with effective transit, including trains and buses, are typically easily sold; those who have not are skeptical because it’s not a part of their experience.
There are few places less transit-friendly or pedestrian-friendly than Baton Rouge, obviously.
The BRAC study makes a case for the financial reasonableness of the rail plan, which requires up-front costs — but those are a fraction of the billions facing Louisiana’s troubled transportation system. Anderson staffs the CRISIS coalition of major employers which combined to address Baton Rouge’s serious traffic problems, so he is one of those most aware of the sometimes conflicting and expensive decisions ahead for traffic planners in metro Baton Rouge.
Rail, of the intercity or commuter variety, “is one of the bright spots on the challenging Louisiana transportation landscape,” Anderson says, almost with relief.