LA: What's next for bustling New Orleans airport? A 21st Century rail link, leaders say.

April 17, 2024
The grand vision for the airport's new master plan — a constantly evolving 20-year program — would be to have an electrified light railway that runs from the North Terminal to a hub for train, bus and other transport on the south side of Airline Highway, across from the South Campus.

Apr. 13—Almost five years after it opened, the $1.3 billion North Terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is now almost universally acclaimed as a jewel in the metro area's crown, a fitting first and last impression for the millions of visitors to the city and something locals can be proud of.

The travel experience through the crescent-shaped building, designed by architect Cesar Pelli, has won praise in customer surveys. The new facility has been named among the nation's best by Airports Council International for several years running.

The airport has also bounced back from the pandemic. Passenger levels weren't expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until later this year, but the latest data show that January and February saw just above 2 million travelers coming and going, about 40,000 higher than the same period in 2019. Meanwhile, the "carmageddon" that some predicted when the airport opened before completion of its direct connection to Interstate 10 never came to pass, partly because of the slump in passengers after spring 2020.

The new terminal has even managed to impress jaded users like Capt. Blake Smith, a 25-year veteran pilot with United Airlines. He and his crew normally breeze through airports without taking much notice.

"But this one has that local flair," he said, standing in front of the menu at Ye Olde College Inn, one of 30 eating and drinking options in the three concourses, which include other New Orleans stalwarts like Leah's Kitchen and Folse Market.

"It makes it nice for us when there are good, local places to eat," Smith said.

Amid all the plaudits, it might be hard to remember that it wasn't always such smooth sailing for the new terminal.

" The North Terminal was a very heavy lift, and we're still lifting," said Kevin Dolliole, the airport's director of aviation since June 2017. He noted that work is still being done to upgrade the baggage system, and he and his staff are operating out of the old building until offices at the new terminal are completed.

When it first opened, before all the praise, there was plenty of talk of the project coming in two and a half years late and about $300 million over its initial budget. The old terminal had been built in 1959, and it wasn't until 2011, under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, that the new terminal was formally proposed. Construction didn't start until 2016.

Dolliole is keen to remind people of how hard the terminal project was to get across the finish line because he is now pushing for the airport's next big set of upgrades, the centerpiece of which he hopes will be a new light rail link between the new terminal and the old one, now referred to as the "South Campus."

The grand vision for the airport's new master plan — a constantly evolving 20-year program — would be to have an electrified light railway that runs from the North Terminal to a hub for train, bus and other transport on the south side of Airline Highway, across from the South Campus. There, passengers would disembark and take another train to the city's central station near the Caesars Superdome, or head north to Baton Rouge or to other regional rail destinations.

Dolliole and other boosters say the new transit system is more than a "nice to have" for visitors. It is essential to accommodate the airport's growth, where 5,000 people already work daily — especially given plans to upgrade South Campus facilities to draw in new cargo operators and other businesses and create thousands more jobs.

'That glow'

Julius Narcisse, a manager at the Fleurty Girl outlet in the new terminal, said he was happy to make the switch from the musty old building, where he worked for six years for the Hudson shops.

"I would say the major difference here is it's got that glow compared to that old building," he said. "It brightens the mood."

But a gripe he and other workers have is the extra time it now takes to get to work. He said he has to arrive up to an hour earlier to factor in the shuttle bus journey from the old parking lot on the South Campus to the new terminal. Passengers who have to travel to the economy parking lot or to car rental outlets have the same hassle.

A light railway is still many years away, but the airport has begun work on a new, dedicated five-mile road that will be the foundation for the rail link. It will at least provide a more regular and safer shuttle bus service in the interim, officials say.

The airport has two federal grants totaling $15 million for the road, enough for design and preparation, said Jamie McCluskie, the airport's deputy director of planning. But it still needs another $80 million to complete that project. McCluskie said they hope to get that from the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Terminals Program, which has $1 billion a year through 2026 to allocate.

A light railway project would cost a lot more. A similar one at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport, for example, which connects that airport's Sky Train to parking and rental car facilities 5 miles away, cost $745 million when it was completed in 2022.

McCluskie said the airport is targeting the U.S. Department of Transportation's Mega Grant Program for the bulk of funding for the light rail proposal.

Meanwhile, the Baton Rouge-to- New Orleans rail connection is in the hands of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

Former Gov. John Bel Edwards talked in his final year in office of bringing that online as early as 2027, but the state's Department of Transportation now says that's not going to happen.

Some federal funding was secured last year and officials are currently negotiating terms to join Federal Railway Administration's Corridor Identification and Development Program for more funding, according to David Gitlin, a spokesman for the department.

"This will most likely extend the start date beyond 2027," Gitlin said. He noted that a grant award would be followed by an environmental study, which would take at least another year, after which it would be three more years before the bridge and rail upgrades could be completed.

A standalone light rail link from the airport to the Central Business District is a long shot. It was studied back in 2006 and the cost then came in at $500 million, which was considered prohibitive and not a top priority in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said Jason Sappington, deputy director of the Regional Planning Commission.

"That will have gone up since then," he said of the cost.

The RPC has recommended more investment in better bus service from the airport to New Orleans via Veterans Memorial Boulevard and possibly a future look at an enhanced transit service, such as Bus Rapid Transit, a system with features like dedicated lanes and signal priority.

Shawn Wilson, who was secretary of the DOTD under Edwards and joined infrastructure firm WSP as a consultant after losing his bid for governor to Gov. Jeff Landry, said bigger thinking is needed.

"Buses and shuttles are not going to cut it," he said.

"If we were to have invested in the light rail from the airport into the city 20 years ago, think how that would have made it much more affordable for folks commuting to work or to have conferences in New Orleans," he said. "Think what it would have meant for development in the region," he added, noting that Amazon cited a lack of a regional transit system as a reason when it balked at making a major investment in the region.

Doug Thornton, deputy chairman of the airport's oversight board, as well as executive vice president at ASM Global, which manages the Superdome, said the investment in the North Terminal paid off.

"Look how we've just recovered more quickly than expected from COVID over the last two and a half years," he said. "It was the investment we made in the terminal that allowed airlines to lower their cost of business and for us to add back the traffic.

"I think if we're going to be successful long term, that connection to (the airport) and Baton Rouge and the city will be a big thing for us in the region."


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