On Aug. 22 — a Wednesday — an early morning traffic accident brought Baton Rouge to a halt for 27 hours.
Authorities were forced to close Interstate 10 in both directions before morning rush hour after one of the three vehicles in the accident began leaking highly flammable isobutane. The closure sent about 100,000 vehicles onto Baton Rouge’s already full surface streets.
The Aug. 22 crash and subsequent “carmageddon” highlighted what for many is one of Baton Rouge’s most pressing problems — getting around the capital city. It’s one of the top issues in the Nov. 6 mayoral election, and each of the four candidates has thoughts on how it should be improved.
Baton Rouge traffic is among the nation’s worst for cities of its size, according to a 2011 report by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.
In the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s annual economic outlook survey, businesses consistently cite transportation as a major obstacle to economic development, said Meg Mahoney, the BRAC’s senior vice president of economic competitiveness.
The August crash underscored the problem, she said.
“I think it was a big issue because so many people use our interstates to commute to and from work,” Mahoney said. “That kind of a shut down at that time of day was significant.”
The problems that face those getting around the city are multifaceted, she said.
“We also have to look at issues of connectivity, planning for a street grid and improving our (public) transit system so that it’s a real alternative,” she said.
In the aftermath of the tanker crash, many wondered if a long-proposed traffic loop around Baton Rouge might have alleviated the problems caused when I-10 was shut down. But even strong, vocal supporters of the loop, such as Mayor-President Kip Holden, say it wouldn’t have helped much in the Aug. 22 crash because of its location and the unusual circumstances that were involved.
Holden has long been a proponent of the Baton Rouge Loop project, a proposed 85- to 90-mile, $4.5-billion, toll-funded beltway surrounding the capital and passing through five parishes — Ascension, Iberville, Livingston, and East and West Baton Rouge.
Holden has said routing some traffic around Baton Rouge would help lessen traffic in the city.
Leaders of three of the five parishes have pulled out of the authority overseeing the project.
Some community residents in areas along the proposed route, such as Watson and Central, have strongly opposed any loop route through their communities.
“I don’t think it’s dead,” Holden said. “I think at some point, the naysayers will come to reality and say we are going to have to have this.”
Holden said a northern bypass — the envisioned first phase of the loop — would have helped alleviate the traffic problems in February, when an 18-wheeler overturned on Interstate 12, prompting dozens of smaller accidents in Livingston Parish and snarling traffic for hours.
It would have had less of an impact on the I-10 closure because that occurred in the southeast part of the city, he said.
Holden said work on the loop permitting process is ongoing.
“We are moving forward,” he said.
Holden’s best-financed opponent, Metro Councilman Mike Walker, argued that the parish and region would be better served by allowing private toll companies to build a series of bypasses around the city.
Deciding where those bypasses should go should be left up to leaders in the respective parishes, he said.
“A loop does not have to be a complete circle,” he said. “Let’s look at the example that Ascension and Livingston are going to show us.”
Officials in the two parishes are forming a toll road authority to explore building a bypass north of Port Vincent. The proposed bypass will “move traffic” in the area, lessening volume on streets in East Baton Rouge Parish, Walker said.
Such bypasses could be used to form an “inner loop” around Baton Rouge, Walker said. An “outer loop” could be formed using existing roads, such as La. 10 and Interstate 55, he said.
Independent candidate Gordon Mese said a loop was the wrong approach to tackle the problem.
“At this point, a loop is a 20th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” Mese said.
He said technological changes within the next 15 to 20 years, such as self-driving cars, could render an expensive traffic loop obsolete before it could be built and paid for.
Steve Myers, who is also running as a no-party candidate, said a loop would just further spread the residential population of Baton Rouge.
“A loop, any loop, would not solve the No. 1 traffic problem we face in EBR right now, which is that our interstate system has become a local road system,” he said.
Baton Rouge streets are already at capacity, Ingolf Partenheimer, the city’s chief traffic engineer, has said. That’s what made the Aug. 22 situation so bad: 100,000 cars from the interstate were diverted onto already full Baton Rouge streets, he said.
Holden said the city’s streets are too small to handle the influx of people to the parish after Hurricane Katrina.
“In one week, we exceeded our 25-year traffic projections,” he said.
That influx combined with infrastructure that is “50 or 60 years behind” make Baton Rouge’s traffic problem even worse, Holden said.
Holden said the parish’s Green Light Plan, which finances road projects through a voter-approved, half-cent sales tax, is making a difference. To date, 28 Green Light Plan projects have been completed and eight remain under construction.
“You build the roads, you alleviate problems,” Holden said. “You now have roads that were two lanes, now they are four lanes. You are getting people home and to work faster.”
Holden has lauded the benefits of widening access to key roads in the parish, such as Harrell’s Ferry Road and O’Neal Lane, at numerous public meetings held to discuss the Green Light Plan.
Walker agrees that the Green Light Plan has been effective.
“I think it was a way for us to get improved roads,” he said. “It’s something that the public can see, feel, touch, taste every day, drive all over it.”
But the program might have reached its limit, he said.
“We have bonded all that the public will allow us to bond,” he said. “That needs to be re-addressed.”
And, he said, the Green Light Plan only addresses half the problem.
“As we increase capacity, we must decrease volume,” he said.
He said the Green Light Plan “was never designed” to reduce the number of cars on the streets.
“Are we taking any of those vehicles off those same streets?” Walker asked. “Today, we are not.”
Walker suggested creating corridors within Baton Rouge, like Central Thruway, which would help relieve congestion on streets such as Sherwood Forest Boulevard.
Independent candidate Gordon Mese said the city must upgrade its entire road system.
“ ‘Carmageddon’ didn’t exist here,” Mese said, referring to his Garden District Nursery on Government Street.
Mese said the reason is simple: Much of Baton Rouge north of Government is laid out in a grid, which makes it easier to find alternate routes and navigate around accidents. He said that grid pattern needs to be extended to the southeastern portion of the parish.
“The magic word is connectivity,” Mese said.
Connecting streets in certain areas must be widened, he said, echoing Holden.
Fellow no-party candidate Steve Myers said increasing street capacity should be the first priority.
“In the short term, moving traffic is the key, not necessarily eliminating it,” Myers said.
Increasing street capacity would reduce congestion on the interstates, Myers said.
Myers said widening Lee Drive and making Nicholson Drive a thoroughfare from downtown to Gonzales are projects that should be investigated.
One way to get cars off the streets is to provide public transportation.
All four candidates say viable public transportation is important to East Baton Rouge Parish, but each offered a critique of the Capital Area Transit System.
“First, you have got to have efficiency and attractive routes to get people involved,” said Holden, who described himself as a CATS supporter. “They are going to have to do an effective job of marketing.e_SDRq
Holden said CATS needs to consider using alternate-fuel vehicles and using smaller buses for less-traveled routes.
“Baton Rouge can be a city that relies on public transit, but we should have started decades ago,” Holden said. “When you look at successful cities, they have been running transportation, in many cases, effectively for a number of years.”
Walker said the city-parish should have followed the example of LSU and put the transit contract out for bid. LSU ended its contract with CATS in 2009 after students complained about poor service.
“We should have allowed a private company to come in, run it, be liable for it, be financially responsible for it and make it parishwide,” he said. “I have no faith in this bus company.”
LSU pays First Transit $3.5 million per year, $1.1 million more than when the university’s contract was with CATS.
Walker said he questioned the legality of the recent CATS tax election, in which only voters in Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary were permitted to vote. The tax measure passed in Baton Rouge and Baker but failed to win approval in Zachary.
CATS was created by a special act of the Louisiana Legislature and historically has received a subsidy from the city-parish.
“One thing that election did is make it so we don’t have to subsidize them any more,” Walker said.
A lawsuit has been filed in 19th District Judicial court asking a judge to block CATS from collecting any tax revenue.
Myers said population density should be studied to determine where public transit should be offered.
“It needs to be a system that makes sense both financially and in terms of our transportation needs,” he said, adding it should “start small” and build.
“If it does not work in areas in south Baton Rouge from downtown to LSU through the Perkins Road corridor … then it certainly won’t work on Hoo Shoo Too Road or in Central,” Myers said.
Myers said other strategies such as carpooling should be incorporated into a public transportation policy.
Mese said he supported the CATS tax.
“It was not perfect,” he said. But “if you have less vehicles on the roads, the roads will last longer.”
Solving Baton Rouge’s traffic and transportation problems is not something that will happen overnight, Mahoney said.
“I don’t think any one solution will solve the problem,” she said. “You have to look at all of it.”
But improving the transportation systems in Baton Rouge would improve the quality of life of its residents, Mahoney said.
“Not having to spend that time commuting, and being able to be productive at work or spend time with their families, will have an impact,” she said.
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