Despite Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Opposition, Business Leaders Want High-Speed Rail Between Baton Rouge, New Orleans

Business leaders in New Orleans and Baton Rouge say they are continuing to look at possible financing alternatives to get a derailed high-speed rail service between the two cities back on track. Michael Hecht, president and chief executive officer of GNO Inc., the chief economic development arm for the New Orleans region, said that by June, the organization may have enough data on financing and ridership to seek federal money for the long-discussed rail project. Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce, said that with “another big pot” of federal dollars in the offing, the two groups are working together to find ways to match the federal dollars and pay the annual costs of operating it. Hecht said that the two organizations are looking at the economic feasibility of the rail project, its route and possible ridership, and how operating costs will be paid. On Wednesday, federal Department of Transportation officials announced a $45 million grant to New Orleans for a 1.5-mile-long streetcar line along Loyola Avenue, from Canal Street to the Union Passenger Terminal, the existing train and bus station. The station is viewed as the most likely location for the New Orleans terminus of the Baton Rouge-New Orleans project, and a streetcar connection from the terminal to the French Quarter might make the high-speed project more attractive to visitors. Knapp pointed out that the request for money from the federal government “has to go through the state.” He said that federal officials have indicated that when states apply for project money they “have to have the enthusiastic support of their state’s leadership.” Gov. Bobby Jindal in September refused to proceed with an application for $300 million in federal funds for the high-speed rail project because local officials had not come up with a plan to finance its annual operations. Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said that “nothing has changed” and the governor is still against seeking federal funds for rail because it would make state taxpayers responsible for annual operating and maintenance costs. Jindal aides said last year the state would have had to come up with at least $18 million a year to operate the light-rail system, money it does not have. Hecht said GNO Inc. is exploring local support for the rail service. It is also trying to determine how the annual operational costs, as well as any local match to federal dollars, could be paid. “The (light-rail service) concept is not dead,” he said. “Our understanding is that some residual may be available in the president’s budget” for rail systems. He said the organizations are looking at public-private partnerships as well as local, state and federal dollars for the project. “We have to put a financing plan together,” Knapp said. “They (federal officials) will have to see a financing plan for operating costs before it is considered. … We think it is a project we can continue to pursue.” Knapp said the Jindal administration may have “shut the door on the application last year but not on a future plan.” Plotkin refused to say whether the administration has been in talks with the two business groups about future rail plans.