BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Planning groups in Baton Rouge and New Orleans have set aside money to study building passenger rail service linking the two major metropolitan areas.

The Advocate reports ( ) that the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Planning Organization last week approved spending $105,000 in federal money for a feasibility study of a commuter rail service to New Orleans.

The New Orleans Metropolitan Planning Organization is matching the expenditure with another $105,000, and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation provided about $90,000 for the study, said Huey Dugas, executive director of the Capital Region Planning Commission.

The proposed commuter rail shuttles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans would travel about 80 miles per hour, Dugas said.

The proposed rail line's future became unclear in 2009 after Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration said it would not apply for $300 million in federal stimulus money to undertake the project.

Jindal aides have said the administration was concerned about the rail line's ongoing costs, estimated at $18 million a year, once it would become operational.

The commuter rail service, as proposed, could use existing railroad tracks, Dugas said. He said the Kansas City Southern freight train tracks are being eyed as an option.

Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence, said 50,000 people regularly commute between Baton Rouge and New Orleans to go to work and return home. DiResto said a commuter line would reduce traffic congestion and provide an evacuation alternative.

John Fregonese, who led the development of the FutureBR master plan for issues of long-term land use and transportation, said the Baton Rouge-New Orleans rail service would also benefit local tourism, allowing Baton Rouge and New Orleans residents to make day trips to eat at restaurants or attend sports events in their neighboring cities.

He also said the line would connect major medical facilities in the two cities and give Baton Rouge residents who fly out of New Orleans International Airport another way to get to the airport.

A 2009 study of rail service between the two cities envisioned passenger stations in downtown Baton Rouge, southeast East Baton Rouge Parish, Gonzales, LaPlace, Kenner and downtown New Orleans.

Fregonese said New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the two largest urban areas of Louisiana, need a stronger link so they can be considered sister cities such as Dallas and Fort Worth in Texas or Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota.

"They have a lot more to offer together than New Orleans or Baton Rouge separately," Fregonese said.

In 2010, the Louisiana Legislature approved a bill creating the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact, which aims to create a five-member panel to see if local governments along the proposed route would be willing to levy taxes and take other steps to support the rail service.


Information from: The Advocate,