Wednesday, April 16, 2014

HNTB: Baton Rouge-New Orleans passenger train would serve 1.4 million

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
HNTB: Baton Rouge-New Orleans passenger train would serve 1.4 million HNTB
A study by HNTB Corp. for regional transit organizations and mayors in Louisiana says that a new passenger train service linking New Orleans and Baton Rouge on existing freight trackage, with intermediate stops and beginning as twice-daily trips, could ultimately grow to regular service with a station near New Orleans International Airport.

In the study, “Baton Rouge-New Orleans Intercity Rail Feasibility Sudy,” HNTB envisions “a convenient alternative for the 1.4 million people who live in the booming parishes along the rail line. Passenger train service would allow riders to work during commutes, offer an evacuation route during hurricanes, especially to Baton Rouge hospitals, and supply easy connections to events, such as LSU and New Orleans Saints football games, Mardi Gras, and Jazz Fest.”

According to HNTB, capital investment for starting the service would be $262 million, with federal funds underwriting up to 80% of the amount. “Startup costs are less than the $448 million estimated in a 2010 study for the state of Louisiana,” HNTB said. “The earlier plan recommended improvements for speeds of up to 110 mph. We recommend intercity passenger rail operations with maximum speeds of 79 mph, a rate that is competitive with car travel. We also advise leasing trains instead of purchasing them to reduce upfront capital costs.”

“Existing freight rail infrastructure owned by Kansas City Southern and CN would be improved along the 80-mile corridor,” HNTB said. “Crossings would be upgraded and rail lines doubled in some sections to allow freight and passenger trains to move efficiently on the same lines. Many bridges would be strengthened or replaced so trains could travel at higher speeds. Replacing the 1.8-mile wooden rail bridge across the Bonnet Carre Spillway, where trains now crawl at 10 mph, is the largest capital cost, at $62.1 million.”

HNTB performed the study for the Capital Region Planning Commission, the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The recommended startup service would operate twice daily between the downtowns of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a trip that would take one hour and 35 minutes with seven stops. A morning and afternoon train for commuters would start in each of the two cities on similar schedules.

HNTB met with civic and elected officials along the line to site potential train stations. Recommended stations would be at Government Street at South 14th Street near downtown Baton Rouge, at the medical corridor on Essen Lane, at East Cornerview Street near Gonzales City Hall, west of Main Street in LaPlace, adjacent to the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner, at Zephyr Field in Jefferson Parish, and the Union Passenger Terminal station near the Superdome, where passengers can access the Loyola Avenue streetcar and other transit options.

New Orleans International Airport officials recently announced plans to construct a new terminal on the north side of the airport’s property, slated to open in 2018. HNTB says there have been initial discussions to determine how best to connect rail passengers to the new terminal. The goal is to one day have hourly service that would stop at the airport.

HNTB’s recommended startup budget includes $1.5 million for each train station, with the expectation that local communities might spend more on surrounding infrastructure to draw investment for housing and retail in transit-oriented developments, as has happened in other cities. Twice daily service would produce estimated ridership of 210,000 in the first year, HNTB says. Fares could be as low as $10 each way. To begin, the train would require annual underwriting of $6.8 million, about one‐third of the estimate in the 2010 study. “We advise exploring many alternatives to cover operating costs, including tax increment financing on the development projects expected to align with the rail line,” HNTB said.

Partners contributing to the HTNB study are the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact, an organization of appointed members from all parish governments along the proposed rail line; the Center for Planning Excellence; the CONNECT Coalition; the Baton Rouge Area Chamber; Greater New Orleans Inc.; and the Southeast Super Region Committee. The full study is available at BRAF.org.