LA: Proposed Baton Rouge-New Orleans passenger train faces renewed questions about stops, funding

Dec. 14, 2023
A battle is brewing over the rail's potential Baton Rouge stops with some Metro Council members have raised concerns over the distance northern East Baton Rouge Parish residents would have to travel to reach those stations.

Dec. 13—The proposed passenger rail from Baton Rouge to New Orleans may be facing yet another crisis, at least from the capital city's perspective.

Slowly gestating for years, the Baton Rouge- New Orleans passenger rail shifted into high gear recently. It won a $20 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant last year. The state steered $20.5 million toward it this year, and Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a pact with Amtrak in October to establish the service, possibly in 2027.

But a battle is brewing over the rail's potential Baton Rouge stops — one at 14th and Government streets, the other in the Baton Rouge Health District, which is in the Bluebonnet Boulevard, Essen Lane and Perkins Road area. Some Metro Council members have raised concerns over the distance northern East Baton Rouge Parish residents would have to travel to reach those stations.

In addition, a key source of funding — a $200 million grant the state wanted from the Federal Railroad Administration — failed to materialize this year. Instead, the state Department of Transportation and Development received $500,000 for project planning purposes.

Edwards spokesperson Eric Holl said the $500,000 award is a sign that the feds still see value in the project. He added that another $3 billion in railroad administration funds is still available.

"We are very optimistic that the $200 million we applied for will be awarded in a future round of funding," Holl said.

However, some city-parish officials are worried the existing $20 million federal grant may dry up if the Metro Council fails to move forward soon on key project aspects, including a maintenance agreement with the state.

Long train runnin'

At a meeting in late November, the Metro Council punted on signing an agreement with the state transportation department for maintenance of the rail's Baton Rouge stops. The council is set to discuss the item again Wednesday.

Fred Raiford, the city-parish's director of transportation and drainage, asked the council at that meeting to defer the pact so he could gather more information on it.

However, Raiford expressed fears about the city-parish losing the $20 million grant — awarded through the federal government's Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, program — if the agreement is delayed for too long.

"I'm trying to verify if I can push that back," Raiford said. "I may come at the next meeting and say I'm going to push it back a little longer. But I want to be sure I don't jeopardize the funding."

Council Member Chauna Banks pushed back, saying grant deadlines aren't the council's burden.

"I understand, but that should not be our issue as it relates to the funding because if it needs to go away, it just might be God's will that it goes away," Banks said.

Banks and several other council members have taken aim at the proposed Baton Rouge locations — and the possibility of maintaining defunct rail stations if meager ridership forces the line's cancellation.

She framed the possible Baton Rouge stops as "opportunities to the elitists" and said the rail line likely would need a new tax to fund its upkeep.

"What you're dealing with is a segregation of people in the south that will have a playground of transportation, however further leaving out persons that live in the northern part of the parish," she said.

Council Member Darryl Hurst proposed the CATS public bus station on Florida Street as a possible stop. Meanwhile, Council Member Cleve Dunn Jr. advocated for a station near the Baton Rouge Metro Airport, for which he serves as a commissioner.

Dunn said 60% of the Baton Rouge airport's customer base already bleeds over to New Orleans. He said the number could skyrocket if the existing rail proposal materializes without a stop at the Baton Rouge airport.

He also argued the proposed maintenance agreement with the state transportation department would be too onerous for the city-parish. Council Member Brandon Noel made similar comments at a planning and zoning meeting last week.

"So we're going to pay to upkeep and maintain this facility while it kills our airport. I cannot support that," Dunn said.

Other spots?

Council Member Aaron Moak, who expressed support for the project, said the rail line can only have so many stops before people decide to drive to New Orleans instead. He also questioned whether Gov.-elect Jeff Landry has decided to support it.

Kate Kelly, a Landry spokesperson, said it was premature to comment on the Baton Rouge- New Orleans rail line because the governor-elect's infrastructure committee is developing recommendations for state transportation projects.

At the late November meeting, John Spain, a senior adviser with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and vice chairman of the Southern Rail Commission, said the proposed stops were recommended in a 2018 study from the parish redevelopment authority.

Spain said a possible stop at Memorial Stadium — which developers are eyeing for a major renovation project — isn't feasible because Canadian Pacific owns the railway there and does not plan to sell it.

Spain also said officials behind the rail project have discussed a possible airport connection "at length."

"When that train goes north, as we've said it will in a future phase, we're going to get to look at north Baton Rouge again," Spain, a longtime rail supporter, told the council.

"If you don't start this train in north Baton Rouge to the underserved community, it'll never get there," Dunn responded. "We don't want to wait until the next phase. We want to be a part of the first phase."

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