Plans remain murky for Baton Rouge-to-NOLA passenger rail

(iStock) New Orleans

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has about two weeks left to draft its initial plans for a proposed passenger rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, reports Louisiana Illuminator.

Act 764, which lawmakers passed last year, calls for the DOTD to prepare the scope, schedule and budget to secure all necessary approvals and permits to begin the service. The act further states that DOTD shall provide those plans to the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee before the April 10 start of the 2023 regular session.

The Joint Transportation Committee met Monday but did not have the rail project on its agenda. DOTD Secretary Eric Kalivoda spent most of the meeting presenting updates on other projects, such as the Interstate 10 widening in Baton Rouge.

It wasn’t until members of the Sierra Club mentioned the deadline in their testimony that some lawmakers learned the committee would have to meet again before the session opens in 19 days.

Kalivoda says many major details for the passenger rail still need to be settled. The state is conducting an environmental study that likely won’t be completed until the end of the year, he added.

Last week, federal regulators approved the long-awaited merger of the Kansas City Southern and Canadian Pacific freight rail companies, which paves the way for the passenger rail service.

Some have envisioned the project as a European-style commuter train that can transport people back and forth to work multiple times a day using clean fuels and modern innovations while at the same time reducing traffic congestion on I-10.

Even the Louisiana Legislature declared through Act 764 that “Now is the ideal time to explore the opportunity to electrify passenger rail.”

But the ideas that officials have so far floated are less innovative and more dated.

The project could turn out to be a standard intercity Amtrak line, like ones that already run through New Orleans. So far, Amtrak has been the only name state officials have mentioned in discussions about who might provide and operate the trains.

Even the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which approved the CPKC merger, mentioned the New Orleans-Baton Rouge proposal as an Amtrak project in its press release.

Amtrak, however, doesn’t operate any commuter rail lines; it only offers intercity and longer-range trips.

Officials want to use CPKC’s existing freight track instead of spending money to build a new line dedicated to passenger rail, and the company has so far agreed to at least one round trip per day—insufficient for commuter service. Read the full story from Louisiana Illuminator.