The state's crumbling roads and highways and the future of its transportation infrastructure bookended a forum among Louisiana's gubernatorial candidates in New Orleans this afternoon. But asked whether the candidates support linking New Orleans and Baton Rouge through an ambitious light-rail system, the answer was largely a "yes."
The candidates — Republican challengers Scott Angelle, Jay Dardenne
and David Vitter
, and Democrat John Bel Edwards
— participated in a forum at the People's Health Jazz Market held by the Southeast Super Region Committee, made up of members from the South Louisiana Economic Council, Greater New Orleans Inc. and Baton Rouge Area Chamber and focusing on coastal restoration, trade and transportation issues. The candidates largely endorsed a high-speed rail line linking the parishes, though they were varied in their enthusiasm.
Edwards said he "unequivocally" supports the project, which he said he would fund within his term. He wants to make the Baton Rouge/New Orleans "super region" competitive with other super regions, not with each other. The rail line, he said, would link not just the parishes but cities and parishes between them.
Dardenne also was enthusiastic about the project, adding that the line could create a "Dallas-Ft. Worth"-styled "megapolis" in Louisiana and would decrease traffic congestion, particularly in Baton Rouge.
Vitter said that congestion — a "traffic nightmare" — is a higher priority, though he would be willing to support the rail line if it can be funded in a "feasible way." Vitter said voters are tired of funding the state's transportation trust fund without seeing results. "Voters will not put more money in a bucket with gaping holes," he said. Angelle said the state has many transportation priorities — all of which are bipartisan issues affecting all residents in the state — from finding funding for road projects (including adding tolls, if necessary) to construction of new bridges.
Dardenne said the state also needs to boost its international transportation, which will be pivotal as New Orleans prepares for its tricentennial when international visitors flock to the city.
But a high-speed rail line in the state — a pitch that transportation advocates have been making for years
— has routinely been knocked down, even as more people move into the state, and as traffic congestion erodes roads, the coast and the environment. Gov. Bobby Jindal shot down a federal pitch
to build a commuter rail line in 2009. The line could cost up to $300 or $500 million, with millions in subsidies each year — candidates were unsure how to manage those subsidies as they also were asked with how to cut and manage a suffering state budget that isn't likely to improve in the coming years.
The candidates were optimistic, however, about coastal restoration efforts as funding from the RESTORE Act and BP settlements is making its way to the state. The candidates all agreed that they would work to ensure state agencies would use those funds explicitly for the coast — Angelle went a step further and said he would look into "criminalizing on a federal level" the misappropriation of those funds.
Qualifying for the election begins next week; election day is Oct. 24.