New Orleans – Shreveport Amtrak service a real possibility
19th August 2013 · 0 Comments
By J. Kojo Livingston
Right now, an Amtrak train ride from New Orleans to Shreveport takes 44 hours and costs $312.00 (one way) if you travel on a Tuesday. This is because the only existing route takes you up through Jackson and into Chicago and then back down to Shreveport.
There currently is no passenger rail service that parallels the Interstate 20 expressway, connecting Dallas to Shreveport to Jackson Ms. and beyond. This means millions, if not billions in potential impact that could be benefiting citizens, businesses and government bodies in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. A unique group of civic leaders and legislators from the tri-state region are working feverishly to remedy this situation. One might think this would be an obvious cause that leaders could unite on across political and other lines. One would be wrong.
One of the leaders in this effort is Louisiana State Representative Roy Burrell. According to Burrell the only opposition to the effort is coming from elected officials in Louisiana. However, Burrell believe that passenger rail service can happen, “If we can get equal support from both sides of the Red River. There appears to be considerable support from Louisiana citizens for future passenger rail service from Dallas/Fort Worth to the Shreveport-Bossier City area, and now to the Mississippi line,” Rep. Burrell says.
Burrell says he has been trying to rally the troops from Shreveport, along the I-20 Corridor East to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to get on board an initiative to secure passenger rail service. He started in April, 2012, prior to the Legislative Session, when he was approached by the Bossier Mayor Lo Walker and Judge Richard Anderson, Chairman of the East Texas Corridor Council (ETCC) to assist them in getting the Legislative Delegation from North Louisiana on board to discuss possible passenger rail service to Louisiana. Since Burrell had become the House Dean of the Northwest Louisiana Delegation, he thought he could encourage his colleagues to support the idea.
He sponsored a House Concurrence Resolution (HCR) 188 to gauge the appetite of legislature for the idea of passenger rail service. “I had heard that Governor Jindal and some Republicans were not very supportive of public passenger rail service and opposed President Obama efforts to expand this type transportation between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but it was worth a try,” said Burrell. Apparently Jindal did not want to accept federal aid for the project because it was being offered by President Obama.
After getting legislative approval for HCR 188, Burrell spearheaded a passenger rail trip in October, 2012 for his legislative colleagues, given by Judge Anderson and the ETCC, who sponsored a special train ride on Amtrak from Dallas/Fort Worth to Longview, Texas, then boarding a bus back to Shreveport. The idea was to get the Louisiana State Delegation to experience passenger rail travel and discuss the possibility of extending the existing service to Louisiana.
A smaller than expected number of legislators attended the train ride after nearly a two months’ notice, but other planning and economic development officials and media was invited. Burrell recognized then something was terribly wrong, “Was it the message or the messenger?” he asked, “Should there have been a white messenger or maybe a Senator to get better support? No one seemed to offer an answer.”
Burrell says that he tried unsuccessfully to meet with Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover to discuss support for funding passenger rail in the 2013 Regular Session. He decided to work more with the Bossier City mayor and East Texas officials who initially asked him help. “In my District 2, I represent and try to work with my mayors in both Bossier and Shreveport, but sometimes only one responds. I am not sure why,” Burrell said.
According to Burrell, he and Mayor Walker, NLCOG, ETCC officials and Max LeComté, Executive Director of the Coordinating and Development Council have worked tirelessly for three months to find State support for funding passenger rail service.
In the final budget negotiations of the 2013 Legislative Session, they found a formidably ally in the person of Louisiana State Representative Katrina Jackson, the powerful Chairlady of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus (LLBC). Rep. Jackson, being a strong member of the Northeast Louisiana Delegation, fought courageously against moves by the Senate Finance opposition to exclude budget funding for a passenger rail feasibility study across Louisiana.
“Thanks to cooperation involving Senate President John Alario, the Governor’s Chief of Staff Paul Rainwater, Rep. Jackson and Ways and Means Chairman Joel Robideaux, and God’s grace, the quarter of a million dollar Capital Outlay funding stayed in the budget,” said Burrell.
Recently, Burrell said he has solicited the support of Ms. Joy Spencer Smith, Superintendent of Amtrak Passenger Services, Central Division to help move this project forward. Smith is an Amtrak veteran of some 32 years who has accomplished a number of “firsts” for Black women in the corporation. Her responsibilities cover the region from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Smith spoke about the project at the recent Coordinating and Development Council (CDC) Workforce Symposium which was held at the new Margaritaville Resort Casino in Bossier City.
Burrell said even with the struggle to get the $250,000 funding this far, there is still stubborn opposition in the Northwest Legislative Delegation to kill the project just to make a point.
“It reminds of my legislative colleagues who fought against me on securing the Inner City I-49 funding. They’d rather cut off their nose to spite their face—how sad!” said Burrell
Several strategies were discussed, agreed upon and assigned to be worked as a result of the meeting to promote the passenger rail project. Judge Anderson, ETCC and Ms. Joy Spencer Smith will work to complete existing Higher Speed Passenger Rail (HSPR) Feasibility Study from Dallas/Fort Worth to Shreveport-Bossier area and cost the passenger service for a celebrity train ride from Meridian, Mississippi to Dallas/Fort Worth for Louisiana government officials. They would also identify any passenger rail marketing dollars from Amtrak.
The CDC and PRT will acquire support letters and recruit support groups from local municipalities and parish governments to support the sale of $250,000 in Bonds for feasibility study along I-20 East to Mississippi. They will also start marketing passenger rail to the Louisiana public and groups such as colleges, universities, churches and business groups. They will urge local citizens and governments to get other I-20 East Corridor legislators involved and secure a letter of support from the Louisiana Congressional Delegation (LCD) officials.
Rep. Roy Burrell, Bossier Mayor Lo Walker and PRT agreed to create a speakers bureau to promote passenger rail in Louisiana, continue to push for more support from the Northwest Legislative Delegation and secure an audience with key LCD officials such as Landrieu, Vitter and Flemings, to push the project forward. They will also request Louisiana State and Congressional officials to place passenger the rail project before National Rail Service officials and follow up on the Capital Outlay Request.
Burrell says he will continue working to extend passenger rail service across North Louisiana to connect cities and towns along the existing federally designated Interstate 20 Higher Speed Passenger Rail Corridor (IHSPRC). “Ultimately, the IHSPRC could become the crossroad for mid-South passenger rail service,” said Burrell.
This article originally published in the August 19, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.