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Parish leaders champion New Orleans-to-Baton Rouge commuter railway


NEW ORLEANS — Parish leaders along the bustling industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans on Wednesday championed the idea of creating a railway commuter line to connect the state's two largest cities and major economic hubs.

Gathering in Gonzales, parish presidents and representatives from seven parishes along the proposed rail route urged the next Louisiana governor to back the project. The four candidates said at a recent forum that they support the project.

The municipal and parish leaders held a news conference at the site of a possible future train station in Gonzales. City officials in Gonzales recently agreed to purchase the site. Officials in Baton Rouge and LaPlace are simultaneously examining potential train station sites in their cities.

The last time passengers could take a train between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was in 1969.

"Right now what we're seeing is unprecedented collaboration between the parishes," said Kristin Gisleson-Palmer, chairwoman of Louisiana Super Region Rail Authority, a state entity working to develop the rail line.

But she said the next governor would need to back the project for it to become a reality. "It could really be a feather in the cap of the next governor," she said.

The proposed route would use existing freight lines and make several stops at towns along the way.

But creating a line would cost a lot of money. A 2014 feasibility study projected it would cost $262 million.

A major cost would be the need to replace a single-track 1.8-mile-long railway bridge that crosses the Bonnet Carre spillway, lying just outside the levees protecting metropolitan New Orleans. Freight trains now are restricted to traveling at 10 mph on the bridge.

The project would need federal funding.

Backers of the rail project are critical of Gov. Bobby Jindal's decision in 2009 to not seek $300 million in federal stimulus money. Jindal said the line would have been a burden on the state in ongoing subsidies to keep trains running each year.

Since then, planners have scaled back plans from a $450 million project to the current $262 million one. Instead of trains traveling up to 110 mph, planners and regional leaders are pushing for a line with trains traveling up to 79 mph.

"It becomes much more realistic," said James Amdal, a senior fellow with the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute. "I don't think there are any insurmountable problems that make this a deal killer."

If the line becomes a reality, Amdal said, Amtrak likely would become the operator. Under a 1970 law, Amtrak is guaranteed the right of access to freight rail lines and it is required to pay only for incremental costs of using such lines.

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