Transit Briefs: Amtrak, MassDOT, SMRTWritten by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
Louisiana Amtrak passenger service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is one step closer to reality now that the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has approved Canadian Pacific’s (CP) $31 billion acquisition of Kansas City Southern (KCS). Also, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) will receive $2 million to use drones and sensors to monitor and analyze railroad infrastructure; and Maryland's FY24 budget includes a significant funding commitment for the Southern Maryland Rapid Transit (SMRT) project.
The March 15 decision by STB to approve a merger between CP and KCS was “a major step forward in the effort to reestablish passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans,” according to a report in The Advocate.
According to the report, STB’s decision “specifically said the deal would allow Amtrak to add passenger service on the KCS-owned line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans,” adding that the “agreements to allow Amtrak access to the Louisiana line and a CP-owned line between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, were conditions for approving the merger.”
According to The Advocate report, the new rail line, which would include stops in Baton Rouge at the Electric Depot on Government Street and in the Bluebonnet-Essen-Perkins medical district; in Gonzales and LaPlace; and at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, with a terminus at the Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans near the Caesars Superdome, could be created as soon as April 14.
The last passenger train between the cities was KCS’s Southern Belle, which was discontinued in 1969, one year before Amtrak’s creation.
The next step, according to The Advocate report, is getting funding for the service. The Louisiana Department of Transportation (LaDOTD) has applied for federal grants to help cover 80% of the cost of replacing the bridge and improve railroad crossings. According to The Advocate report, the state has also applied for a grant that would pay for most of the operating costs of the rail service for the first six years of operations. “The grant would cover 90% of the costs of operations for the first year of service and drop down by 10% each of the next five years. That is meant to help subsidize the expense of operating the service while the customer base builds up,” according to the report.
Executive Vice President of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation John Spain said a decision on the grant awards “could happen by the end of the year.”
“The next steps are the state, CP and Amtrak all determining when service will begin, what sort of infrastructure improvements need to be made and signing partnership agreements between all of the parties,” said BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp, according to The Advocate report.
MassDOT will receive nearly $2 million to improve rail safety, efficiency and climate resilience by using drones and sensors to monitor and analyze railroad infrastructure threatened by ground water variability in Cape Cod, Mass.
The funds are part of the first round of grant awards totaling more than $94 million for 59 projects through U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) new Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grants Program announced March 21.
The competitive grant program, established by President Biden’s Infrastructure Law, provides State, local and Tribal governments $500 million over five years to “leverage technology to create safer, more equitable, efficient, and innovative transportation systems.”
The Maryland House of Delegates has approved the State budget for FY23, including “a significant funding commitment for the SMRT project,” according to a report in The Southern Maryland Chronicle.
According to the report, the budget bill, HB200, includes “a provision to add $100 million in grant funds to the appropriation for the Dedicated Purpose Account within the State Reserve Fund to support the State match for future federal grant awards and to fund future environmental studies for the Red Line and SMRT projects.”
The SMRT project, which has been in the planning phase for several years, includes two possible transit modes: Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). A year ago, according to The Southern Maryland Chronicle report, Congress appropriated $5 million to begin the final planning phase of the project, which would bring “fast, safe, and accessible rapid transit service to the half-million residents of the MD5-US301 corridor, one of the most congested and gridlocked in the State.” The State, according to The Southern Maryland Chronicle report, responded with an equal commitment of $5 million, as required by legislation enacted by the General Assembly in 2021. The combined $10 million in federal and State funding is shown on the page describing SMRT in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) new Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). However, The Southern Maryland Chronicle reports, “more money is needed to complete the project’s final planning phase.”
According to the report, the Charles County Commissioners have submitted a new funding request to the Congressional Delegation for the next round of federal earmarks, and discussions in recent months with State leaders have “emphasized the need to include additional funding for SMRT in the State’s budget for FY24 that would be available to match future federal appropriations.”
“The new State budget commitment of $100 million is significant as it means that when Congress approves additional earmark appropriations for SMRT, State money will be on hand to match it, dollar for dollar. The progress of the final phase of required environmental studies for SMRT will not be interrupted midstream by a lack of funding, and MDOT will have the money it needs to promptly complete the design, engineering, NEPA process, and secure a federal Record-of-Decision for SMRT,” The Southern Maryland Chronicle reported.
According to The Southern Chronicle report, the approval of the State budget for FY24 with a major funding commitment for the SMRT project, a “need and merit-based State priority,” is the work of many key players, including elected leaders and staff at the local, State and federal levels, who have been working together for years to put the SMRT project “on the fast track to implementation.”