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By Angela Cotey, senior associate editorWhen the Obama administration announced the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program in 2008, Louisiana planned to apply for funds. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) was prepared to seek $300 million to build a passenger-rail link between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.But like a few other Republican governors, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2009 announced the state wouldn’t seek funding, after all. The high-speed link would have been expensive; a study conducted by LaDOTD and the Southern High Speed Rail Commission determined the line would cost $470 million to build, and require an $18 million annual operating subsidy. The plan was axed, but officials in the two cities still wanted to create a passenger-rail connection. That’s why the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, Baton Rouge’s Capitol Regional Planning Commission and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation in January 2013 contracted HNTB Corp. to conduct a feasibility study examining the cost and projects that would be associated with adding more traditional intercity passenger-rail service in the corridor.
HNTB completed the study in February. Their findings? Passenger trains between the cities don’t need to be fast to be successful — they just can’t be slow. The need for transportation alternatives between Louisiana’s capitol and largest city became clear after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “There was a real need for evacuation options, and everyone saw that if there had been a [passenger] rail system set up, it could have been very helpful,” says HNTB Principal Transportation Planner Alan Tobias, who served as project manager for the New Orleans-Baton Route feasibility study. “The only option right now is Interstate 10, which can get very congested at times.”
After the hurricane, the “mass exodus” from New Orleans promoted growth in Baton Rouge and its suburbs, Tobias adds. Now that New Orleans’ population is beginning to increase once again, more people than ever are commuting between the two cities, located about 80 miles apart. Intercity passenger-rail service would help alleviate the growing highway congestion — and it doesn’t have to operate at high speeds to draw riders, HNTB officials say.“We kind of stepped back a bit when we did this study and said, ‘Do we really need high-speed rail in this corridor?’” says Tobias. “It’s only 80 miles long, so you don’t really gain a whole lot by going 110 mph. If you can get to 79 mph and maintain that speed, you can get some competitive travel times.”HNTB also recommends that the service begin with two daily trips, versus the eight daily trips that had been proposed as part of the high-speed study. Once the service is in place and established, more frequencies could be added over time.
Half the cost of high speedThe HNTB study pegged start-up costs at about $260 million, with annual operating subsidies of about $9 million. Both figures are about half of what a high-speed service would have cost. One of the largest cost savings is tied to bridges; the corridor, which is primarily owned by Kansas City Southern, includes about 80 bridges, most of which are timber. For passenger trains to operate at 110 mph, KCS officials said all timber bridges would have to be replaced with steel and concrete structures; the timber bridges can withstand 79 mph trains, says Tobias. The largest capital project associated with the revised passenger-rail service calls for replacing a two-mile rail bridge across the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which enables floodwater from the Mississippi River to flow into Lake Pontchartrain. HNTB pegs the project cost at $60 million. Now that the study is complete, New Orleans and Baton Rouge officials will need to determine how they want to proceed. It wouldn’t be the first city pair to scale back high-speed plans in favor of more affordable upgrades. In 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) turned away federal high-speed dollars for a Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago high-speed link at the insistence of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Today, WisDOT instead is focusing on upgrading the Milwaukee-Chicago portion of the corridor, over which Amtrak Hiawatha trains operate. A study is being conducted to determine options for adding three additional round trips, for a total of 10, between the two cities, says Tobias. “Because the corridor is only 90 miles long, there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities to save a lot of time, so the focus is on increasing frequencies so people have more options,” he says. Many states still are interested in high-speed rail — HNTB is involved in “quite a few studies across the country” that prove it, says Tobias — but in many regions, an incremental approach might make more sense. “We tend to get hung up on that high-speed number, and it is appealing,” says Tobias. “But the best way to go faster is to not go slow. You can make incremental improvements to conventional services that help to improve travel time, increase frequencies and improve reliability, and sometimes that’s just as important, if not more.”