Millions in federal funding on way for rail project connecting Baton Rouge to New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Louisianans have long heard about efforts to make train service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge a reality. But now, federal money is on the way for that purpose.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Fox 8 in an exclusive interview that grant funds are headed to Louisiana for the rail project, as part of the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program.
“This $20 million award is based on a process where we went through applications from around the country and saw this vision for Baton Rouge and that link to New Orleans and decided that was something that we could support in a way that was going to help create jobs, help benefit so many considerations from equity to pollution -- all getting better when this train is up and running,” Buttigieg said.
Louisiana communities had to compete for the funding award.
“It’s a very competitive process,” Buttigieg said. “This time around, I think we had about $6 worth of applications for every dollar we were able to provide. But very strong applications succeeded in that process. This is an example of that.”
The grant is related to the trillion-dollar infrastructure package passed by Congress in 2021.
“This is an example of the funding that is now available, through bipartisan infrastructure law that the president signed last year, that we’ve been working so hard on. Now, we’re actually getting those dollars out the door,” said Buttigieg.
While a member of the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden said he relied heavily on Amtrak to get him to and from his Delaware home and Washington D.C. Now as president, Biden and his administration want to expand access to rail service.
“This administration is a big supporter and big believers in making sure people have the option of excellent passenger rail service,” Buttigieg said.
John Spain represents Louisiana on the Southern Rail Commission and says he has been working on the rail service project for a decade. He says the new federal funds will be used to build train stations in Baton Rouge and Gonzales.
“Unlike New Orleans, those two communities do not have train stations. So, as we start the Baton Rouge-New Orleans route, obviously they have to have train stations,” Spain said.
He said the train will run at 90 mph and that Amtrak is on board with the project. The trip between New Orleans and Baton Rouge will take a little over an hour.
“I’d say this train could start service in the next 24 months or so,” Spain said. “A truck wreck or something is not going to stop it, and (passengers can) work because it has wi-fi and be productive, make phone calls. I think people will use it.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office said in a statement, “The grants are going to both Baton Rouge and Gonzales, the award recipients for station development. The state is engaged to help facilitate the development of passenger service, but the state is not receiving federal funds for station development. Currently, DOTD is doing a feasibility study. Any details about the projects would have to come from the local governments.”
Money from the RAISE grant is not just benefitting big Louisiana cities. For example, Lafourche Parish is getting more than $2 million for the Valentine Pontoon Bridge in Lockport.
“We have an even split in this funding between rural projects and urban projects,” Buttigieg said.
Lafourche Parish president Archie Chaisson said, “The parish put some of our own skin in the game and bonded out some of our road dollars to help do it. And then the RAISE grant came across from the Biden administration as part of the IIJA package, so we applied for that money. And thanks to Sen. (Bill) Cassidy, Congressman (Garret) Graves and Congressman (Steve) Scalise, last week we were awarded about $2.5 million for that project.”
Chaisson said the money will free up other local dollars.
“It allows us to claw some of our money back and do other things for our constituents and roads and bridges and drainage projects,” he said. “But it’s going to allow us to put back a bridge that has been out of service for some seven years.”
Plaquemines Parish is getting more than $1 million for a roadway to the Pointe-a-la-Hache Ferry. The state said five Louisiana applicants will receive a total of $63.1 million as part of the RAISE grant program.
Buttigieg said there will be other opportunities to get additional funds.
“Some of these dollars go to the states by formula, so the Department of Transportation for the state will be able to take a number of dollars that we’re providing through this package and put them to use on the projects that they believe are most important,” he said.
Buttigieg says many communities need federal funds for infrastructure upgrades.
“Part of the challenge is the need is so great. We have $2.6 million headed to Lafourche Parish, which will enable them to cut travel times in half by dealing with a dilapidated bridge there,” he said. “It certainly gives us a lot of urgency to make sure that these projects advance on time, because time is money. And when you have costs rising, that effect is even stronger.
“Now, we’ve seen some encouraging news in recent weeks with the inflation appearing to cool off. But it’s certainly a factor when it comes to raw materials, when it comes to labor.”
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