When we think about connecting cities and making it easier for people to travel between hubs, we immediately think of roads. When those roads are congested, we demand they be expanded. Two-lane highways become four lanes (see Burbank Drive). Four lanes are converted to interstates (see the sluggish expansion of I-49 South). We cut new roads for shorter routes and inadvertently create new business hubs while deserting old ones (see Hwy. 190, also Disney/Pixar's Cars).
The answer to connectivity that public leaders give, and what many of us think we want to hear, is more and bigger roads. Few ask if that will actually get us anywhere faster.
So I was somewhat surprised when William Daniel, director of Baton Rouge's Department of Public Works, said during a panel discussion Tuesday about better connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans, “The interstate is not going to be the solution.”
This was during the Connect Policy Forum, a day of talks organized by Center for Planning Excellence and featuring leaders from both metro areas. The topic was connecting the “super region” mainly through a rail line. It's a plan discussed for years, and carries a huge price tag, not to mention the needed support of seven parishes. The state sought $300 million in federal aid in 2009 to get it started, though the Jindal administration nixed the idea for being too costly. That didn't stop metro planning organizations in both cities from pushing forward on their own feasibility studies, according to this Advocate story.
We could talk for days about the various economic benefits of an efficient commuter rail linking Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the cities between. But I'll just offer this image—a 50-minute train ride between both major hubs—and let you fill in the rest.
When I was working for The Times of Acadiana in Lafayette a few years ago, I wrote a story based on this question: Could you hop on the Amtrak in Lafayette and ride 25 minutes south to New Iberia, spend a day wandering the quaint downtown and hop another train back later that day? According to the Amtrak website (at least in 2007) you could, with three hours of free time in New Iberia before another train arrived from New Orleans. Why wasn't this a thing people did?
The train station in downtown Lafayette was nice and well kept, the product of funds after Katrina when Amtrak ran frequent services between the Hub City and New Orleans. There's no onsite office; tickets have to be ordered in advance. And there was only one other person waiting at the station the day of my trip: a businessman from Thibodaux who would be getting off in Schriever.
My excursion to the Bayou Teche wasn't meant to be, though. The train was late by more than three hours, meaning I'd not be able to catch the return. I guess a lot can happen when the train's journey starts in Los Angeles. The man from Thibodaux went to grab a bite while he waited. I went back to the newsroom and called Amtrak for a reimbursement of my $12 roundtrip ticket.
I realized then why more people don't use the service—passenger trains were infrequent and unreliable.
I thought about this while at the Connect Policy Forum. What would lead Amtrak to invest in smaller commuter trains, just one or two cars, for that short route? What leads two major Louisiana cities to decide they need a rail line connecting them? Does it start with a tourism push? Does it start with economic struggles leading residents to seek out public transport? Does it start with government officials who want to boost local economies?
In Baton Rouge, people struggle to see the bus system as more than a public service for poor people. In New Orleans, people struggle to see the network of streetcars as more than a tourist draw (even though, as Justin Augustine of New Orleans Regional Transit Authority pointed out at the forum, locals make up 74 percent of its ridership).
Funding may be the greatest hurdle to realizing the dream of a commuter rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. But what surprised me most at the forum was that people in power are getting over the other hurdle of only seeing public transport as a service for a narrow demographic. They are starting to see it as a way to connect.
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