Advocates for proposed regional passenger rail system renew efforts

Advocates for proposed regional passenger rail system renew efforts

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Advocates for a passenger rail service in south Louisiana are urging the next governor to get on board with advancing a $262-million project that will connect the Baton Rouge-New Orleans corridor.

According to our partners at NewOrleansCityBusiness, the proposed station in Gonzales would be one of seven stops for the passenger rail service route along the Baton Rouge-New Orleans corridor.

State Rep. Walt Leger, commissioner with the Southern Rail Commission, said he has spoken with each of the four major gubernatorial candidates for governor.

According to Leger, the candidates all show support.

"I think they recognize that from the standpoint of continued growth in the corridor that this is really a critical issue from a workforce standpoint," said Leger, D-New Orleans, who is also speaker pro tempore for the state Legislature.

This would help provide transportation for thousands of workers to multibillion-dollar plants coming to the area, he added.

The Southern Rail Commission, a group that advocates for passenger rail service, this week released a briefing book that outlines the next steps to make the intercity passenger rail service come into fruition.

The group was established by Congress in 1982 to engage and inform the public about rail initiatives across the South.

The venture does not need legislative approval, but it would most likely need legislative appropriation of capital outlay funds that could match local, federal and private money. In order to achieve the cost, Leger said it will take major partnerships.

According to a 2014 feasibility study, the project would cost $6.78 million a year to operate.

"The importance of the governor's relationship to the creation of this project is that it is a large project, and in order to accomplish what needs to be done, there needs to be a commitment from the Governor to actually be focused on the project," he said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal declined to use federal funds available to invest in a high speed rail system in a federal stimulus package in 2009.

The proposed service includes seven stops: downtown Baton Rouge, suburban Baton Rouge, Gonzales, LaPlace, Kenner, Jefferson Parish and New Orleans Union Terminal.

Morning and evening routes are planned initially - 1.5 hour each way at 79 miles per hour. Most recently, Gonzales has purchased its parcel of land of which they would like to build their station.

The commission recommends several funding tools: increasing the statewide gas tax by a half cent per gallon, assessing an additional one percent rental car tax and one percent hotel tax in the parishes along the proposed rail line and a "value capture" three percent tax assessment on properties within a half mile of the proposed passenger rail stations.

Leger said none of these approaches should be considered in isolation because it only takes some of them to fund the project.

In Louisiana, Leger said the most expedient way to an operating agreement will occur if state leadership works through Amtrak to negotiate with the host railroads.

The New Orleans to Baton Rouge passenger rail corridor is about 80 miles and would share track with three separate railroad operators: Kansas City Southern, 66.5 miles; Canadian National Railroad, 7.5 miles; and New Orleans Building Corporation, which is operated by Amtrak, 3.7 miles.

Leger said taking no action to establish the service in the next term will "limit fiscal and economic growth."

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