If the goal of light rail is to take commuters from Point A to Point B and beyond, then New Orleans remains stuck at or just shy of Point A. But it's not for lack of effort.
Three years ago, as part of President Barack Obama's stimulus package, the feds made money available to build a high-speed rail system between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Public and private groups responded quickly by commissioning studies and forming coalitions. Some state lawmakers got behind the idea as well.
But Gov. Bobby Jindal had other ideas.
With great pomp and pageantry, Jindal announced that the Bayou State didn't need, or want, the rail line. Critics said Jindal's chop block to the stimulus cash was based more on his own ideology and national ambitions than on Louisiana's transportation needs. The announcement brought him bouquets from anti-Obama conservatives as he explained to Louisiana boosters that a high-speed rail system would cost the state $18 million annually — money he said Louisiana didn't have — to operate the modern line at full capacity.
Undaunted, nonprofits in the two cities trudged forward, eventually abandoning the high-speed concept for a commuter rail proposal that's still being discussed.
"High speed rail has become a hot-button political issue," says state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans. "It just makes more sense to look at light rail."
Leger's sentiments aren't exclusive to Louisiana. Members of the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission, which includes members from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, voted last month to change the group's name to the Southern Rail Commission. The commission could be a major player in the coming months and years as plans for New Orleans rail lines continue to take shape.
The agency has the ability to pull down millions in federal funds for studies and planning. Plus, more tellingly, Leger was recently elected as its new chairman.
Leger, who serves as speaker pro tem of the Louisiana House of Representatives, says he's eager to find ways for Louisiana to tap into the long-term goal of a high-speed rail linking Houston and Atlanta, but right now his priority is light rail lines serving New Orleans.
Leger added that one project that may gain momentum during his tenure as commission chair involves a passenger line from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla. That line at one time was part of Amtrak's Sunset Limited line, which stretched from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. It was abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, now stopping in New Orleans.
Repairs have enabled the restoration of freight train traffic on the New Orleans-Jacksonville line, but Amtrak has not reestablished any of the services needed for passenger travel. The federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 required Amtrak to submit a plan to do just that, but so far there's been no movement.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu supports rejuvenating the line and has argued that it could boost tourism, not to mention rail transportation in general. This past summer, Landrieu's office urged Amtrak to look closely at the demographics and at the jobs available in New Orleans, for which commuters outside the region could use rail lines to obtain.
There's likewise a strong push coming from the East Coast, says Robert J. Stewart, chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a nonprofit advocacy group. "Passenger rail service between New Orleans and Jacksonville is a strategically important component of the national intercity passenger train system," Stewart says. "This route segment will serve an unmet need by connecting Florida with the southern and western United States."
Then there's the proposed line linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which could use existing tracks, at least in theory. For boosters, the war cry is a simple one. "Apart, the two cities are less competitive than they are together," Leger says. "I hope this year we start to see some movement. I'll certainly be focused on it."
A major feasibility study, for which money is already secured, is expected to be awarded in the coming months, but there have been serious gaps in the tracks of a proposed planning group.
According to Huey Dugas, executive director of the Capital Region Planning Commission, his group and the New Orleans Metropolitan Planning Organization have each put up $105,000 for the study; the Baton Rouge Area Foundation has ponied up another $90,000. "We should see some action on that early next year," Dugas says.
The study's most significant finding may be new information it reveals about the impact (and benefits) of adding service to Louis Armstrong International Airport. Supporters say it's an aspect that has been ignored by previous talks about a possible New Orleans-Baton Rouge line.
The concept of a New Orleans-Baton Rouge line is not new, but movement on the Baton Rouge end is. In 2010 the state Legislature created the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact, which was supposed to serve as a political subdivision for two or more local governments to explore passenger rail. The New Orleans City Council immediately signed on and appointed members, but the Baton Rouge Metro Council still hasn't acted.
Some in Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden's administration have quietly promised that a decision could be forthcoming, although backers, who have heard that line for years, remain skeptical about the Metro Council making a move.
One of the major hurdles involves the parishes between the two cities. Supporters hope they'll follow Baton Rouge into the compact. But requests for multiple stops in the River Parishes have created complications, sources say, as that could diminish the speed and effectiveness of the rail line. A 2009 study proposed six stops on the route: downtown Baton Rouge, southeast Baton Rouge, Gonzales, LaPlace, Kenner and downtown New Orleans.
No doubt we'll hear more about linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the coming months. The state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) has scheduled a public meeting in New Orleans Oct. 2 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Regional Transportation Management Center (10 Veterans Memorial Blvd.) and in Baton Rouge Oct. 3 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m (BREC Independence Park, 7505 Independence Blvd.). The goal, according to a DOTD press release, is to gather public input for the Louisiana State Rail Plan, which includes freight and passenger rail services.
Leger advises keeping an eye on federal elections as well.
"Right now there seems to be a commitment on the federal level for rail between Jacksonville and New Orleans. It's also expected that Congress will take up a new transportation bill next year, and we are hoping to participate in that," he says. "We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us. We just need to continue building support."