Are We There Yet?
By Cody HoldenPosted Sep 12, 2012
In Louisiana’s capital, there are typically three things that every resident has in common: a zealous love for LSU’s Death Valley, an insatiable appetite for Raising Cane’s chicken fingers, and boiling rage directed at the traffic that impedes us from reaching these bastions of Baton Rouge identity. While the first two items will most likely be constants in the Red Stick for many years to come, a new slate of projects and programs fueled by local discontent and the need for better infrastructure are looking to change the perception of terrible transport in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Research done by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute has reinforced what many locals have recently felt about traffic, finding that the annual total delay due to congestion in Baton Rouge has increased each year since 1997.
“In my opinion, it’s been getting worse month-to-month,” said James Perrilloux, an accountant in Baton Rouge who regularly commutes from Livingston Parish. “The time that I have to budget for the interstate congestion has just continued to be more and more.”
Commuters from the south are also constrained by the fact that Airline Highway and Nicholson Drive are their only real ways to circumvent Bayou Manchac and enter the parish. “With school back in session, I feel like my commute has gotten even worse,” said St. Gabriel resident and Baton Rouge instrument tech Louis Richard. “Nicholson is a nightmare trying to get home.”
Along with noting the increased delay, studies have posited that the problems are the result of a roadway system plagued by poor planning and insufficient capacity. The INRIX Traffic Scorecard, an international comprehensive analysis of traffic and congestion conditions, named Baton Rouge the 58th most congested corridor in 2011. This comes after the I-12 eastbound stretch from Essen Lane to O’Neal Lane was ranked 26th worst peak afternoon traffic nationally in 2010. Similary, Governing magazine ranked Baton Rouge’s Friday afternoon commute as the 11th worst in the nation. How exactly did a city like Baton Rouge come to have more congestion than cities with significantly higher populations, like Boston and Philadelphia?
Connectivity and capacity
According to FUTUREBR, many of the problems stem from a lack of proper planning following Baton Rouge’s critical growth phase from a small town to large city during the 1960s and 1970s. The lack of city-parish infrastructure support for this transition has contributed to Baton Rouge’s standout underperformance when compared to other cities. In fact, The Texas Transportation Institute found that Baton Rouge was the most congested of 33 similarly mid-sized cities. Furthermore, while the per-commuter cost of congestion has dropped, Baton Rouge residents are still facing a grim $1,000 wasted per year due to wasted time and gasoline in traffic.
Ken Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, a nonprofit group that advocates for better roads and infrastructure, found that the decisions to not adequately fund transportation were a primary factor leading to this point.
“Time spent in traffic is time and money wasted, and today Louisiana can put a dollar figure on that congestion tax,” Perret said. “Our traffic problems didn’t happen overnight; we shortchanged our system for years to get to this point.”
However, while proper planning and adjustment for the population growth in Baton Rouge could have significantly obviated many of the problems we have today, there are still unavoidable facets of life in Baton Rouge that lead to congested roadways.
Bryan Harmon, deputy director for the Department of Public Works, says that the geography of the Red Stick is a major factor in today’s clogged commuter routes. “Baton Rouge is unique. We’re not like a small Dallas or something like that. We have some particular constraints here, like the Mississippi River to the west, the Amite River to the east, and Bayou Manchac to the south,” Harmon said. “The interstates here, as Baton Rouge has grown outside of its limits, are the primary means of access for people who commute to town, and we can’t build multiple alternative grid systems across the river. A lot of it is based on funding, but a lot of it is also based on topography and climate.”
One of the most recent incidents to draw a spotlight to the problem of connectivity and capacity and Baton Rouge’s reliance on a few, overfilled arterial roadways, was the big rig wreck around the I-10/I-12 split in August. Following the wreck, which leaked nearly 9,000 gallons of isobutane during peak traffic hours, movement was stalled for hours, incapacitating both commerce and commuter traffic for more than 24 hours.
“You have to have alternative major routes. The problem with that incident was that it affected two major interstates that move hundreds of thousands of cars each day,” Harmon said. “While people may say that it’s local traffic, local traffic isn’t creating 200,000 vehicles a day on that interstate. There’s tremendous trucking traffic, pass-through traffic, and lots of commerce going on. We just don’t have the alternative routes coming into the parish.”
While alternative roadways to provide relief to clogged motorways are being discussed, alternative modes of transportation have also been a key issue when talking about Baton Rouge’s potential. Included in the FUTUREBR map are things like streetcars between areas like LSU and downtown Baton Rouge, as well as HOV lanes for Bus Rapid Transit systems. Likewise, the existence of Park and Ride locations and growing bicycle communities have seemed to provide Baton Rouge with at least a semblance of an alternative to the endless crystalline mosaic of individual car windshields blanketing Baton Rouge’s streets.
However, again, there are both created and natural boundaries to achieving these alternative systems.
“It goes back to culture. We can do a lot of different things, but if people aren’t willing to park their car and ride a bus, it won’t happen,” Harmon said. “As far as a bicycle community goes, you’re in the Deep South. We have a lot of humidity and heat, and its just not conducive to people riding a bike through months like June and July.”
Nonetheless, programs like Baton Rouge’s Complete Streets have aimed to unify bicycle, walking, and automobile traffic into a safe, collectively functioning network. The push to create more roundabouts in place of traditional four-way stops largely results from studies demonstrating that roundabouts not only handle traffic more efficiently, but also accommodate multi-modal transit more smoothly. While these efforts are taking place, there still hasn’t been much progress from Baton Rouge’s dismal multi-modal figures. Less than 50 percent of roadways in the city limits have sidewalks, and, as of 2011, there are only 7.5 miles of bike paths. While efforts for the expansion of new systems like passenger rail or support systems for pedestrian travel are still moving a bit slowly, one particular incentive coming from Mayor Kip Holden’s office has been able to produce quick improvements due to a new way of funding.
Getting the green light
Resulting in some of the key extensions that some might already have taken for granted, like the Staring Lane extension or widening of Burbank Drive, the Green Light Plan was pushed by Mayor Holden in 2005. Following extensive public meetings deriving the most pertinent issues to area drivers, the plan has a current value of $650 million and it encompasses 42 road projects. The scope of the plan was supported by a half-cent sales tax dedication that was overwhelmingly supported by voters in 2005. John Snow, spokesman for the Green Light Plan, said that the way the funding is constructed allows for a much more rapid construction plan in place of a traditional, one-project-at-a-time approach. “Bonds are issued by the city-parish to provide short-term capital to fund projects. Those bonds are paid back over time by the money from this half-cent tax,” Snow said. “By doing it that way, the city-parish can do more things and do them more quickly than we would have been able to under the traditional ‘pay-as-you-go’ system. It has an innovative financial structure.”
As the program has progressed to complete 28 projects, the system has been supported by bond sales of $125 million in 2006, $110 million in 2009, and, recently, $38 million in 2012. “What people said early on was that they don’t care whether it’s a city or state road, they just want help getting out of traffic,” Snow said. “The goal of this program is to reduce congestion across Baton Rouge and give quick solutions to clear things up. The idea is to go into the areas where work is needed the most.”
While the costs of funding these roads are steep, this new system seems to be the approach to better traffic in Baton Rouge. Despite the still-lackluster rankings, the city has seen some slight improvements in traffic statistics, which perhaps points to a better chance of a quicker commute. “Good roads cost money; poor roads cost more,” Perret said. “Wouldn’t Louisiana’s drivers rather pay less now for better roads than sit in traffic, wasting time and even more money?”