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Louisiana officials drop high speed rail proposal

(The following story by Will Sentell appeared on The Advocate website on August 22, 2009.)

BATON ROUGE, La. — In a sudden about face, state transportation leaders said Friday they are dropping plans to seek about $300 million of special federal aid to launch passenger railroad service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Officials said earlier this month that, while similar plans have failed in recent years, a new proposal was being drafted in hopes of launching rail service by 2013.

But state Transportation Secretary William Ankner dropped the effort Friday.

Ankner said in a letter Friday to Ray LaHood, secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation, that the state studied the possibility of a Baton Rouge-New Orleans line “and determined that it would not be a financially sustainable operation.”

Ankner, in a response to questions, said he was not pressured by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office to drop the proposal because of any political considerations.

The federal money is part of $8 billion in what backers call federal stimulus dollars.

Since news of the railroad proposal surfaced earlier this month Jindal has been criticized by some national commentators. They said it was inconsistent for the Republican governor, who has criticized railroad and other stimulus spending, to consider asking for more aid to finance a Louisiana project.

In a national response to a speech by Democratic President Barack Obama earlier this year, Jindal singled out for criticism plans for $8 billion in federal spending on high-speed rail projects, including a “magnetic levitation” line from Las Vegas to Disneyland.

The $300 million would not have provided high-speed rail. But state officials said it could have eventually linked to any high-speed Gulf Coast rail plan, if that became reality.

Asked if Jindal would comment on the issue, Kyle Plotkin, the governor’s press secretary, released a prepared statement by Jindal’s Communications Director Melissa Sellers.

That statement said the state transportation department would not submit an application for the money and that it would not have been a good use of tax dollars.

Ankner said earlier this month that the key issue was whether he could develop a plan that allowed the state to come up with $18 million per year to operate the train.

Despite earlier signs of optimism, Ankner said Friday that “no matter how we sliced and diced” state officials were unable to come up with such a financing package.

The $300 million triggered enthusiasm from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

BRAC President and Chief Executive Officer Adam Knapp said Friday evening he is asking Ankner for time to let officials of the Baton Rouge-New Orleans business corridor to explore possible financing answers.

“This project is far too important to stop this early in the process,” Knapp said.

Under a state timetable spelled out earlier this month, Ankner was supposed to get the proposal by Sept. 1, review it and then send it to Jindal if Ankner concluded it would be feasible.

The state’s decision Friday marks the third time since 2005 that transportation leaders have raised the possibility of a Baton Rouge-New Orleans rail line that later died.

Monday, August 24, 2009

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