EBR set to take over three state roads leading downtown

East Baton Rouge Parish is preparing to take control of three major state roads, which could help expedite some hotly anticipated projects touted by the city-parish.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development is expected to transfer ownership of segments of Nicholson Drive, River Road and Government Street, totalling almost 11 miles of roads leading to downtown Baton Rouge.

The roadways ultimately will allow the city-parish to provide better connections between downtown and LSU and implement “complete streets” initiatives to make the roadways safer and more pedestrian friendly, Department of Public Works Director David Guillory said.

In exchange for taking ownership of the roads, the state will award Baton Rouge about $13 million in construction credits, which is supposed to equal 40 years of maintenance costs for the roads, Guillory said.

The three roads are ripe for local improvements.

For years, redevelopment advocates and city officials have discussed putting Government Street on a “road diet” and taking it from four lanes to three lanes. The three-lane roadway would include a turning lane and sidewalks or bike paths.

Recently, Nicholson Drive has taken center stage, with officials expressing their desire to build a streetcar line connecting downtown and LSU.

Guillory said owning the roads gives the city-parish more control of long-term and short-term planning and will make the process for improvements more efficient. It also gives the city-parish more control over roadway additions such as bike paths, sidewalks and a possible streetcar line.

“Those are our greenway concepts and you have to tackle those from the local level,” Guillory said.

But, he said, funding is always the major obstacle, and the construction credits are not the same as money in the bank, nor is it enough to cover the scope of work planned for the roadways.

The construction credits mean the city-parish can apply to use state funds to cover its construction costs for various projects.

The Metro Council is expected to vote Wednesday on the transfer. Guillory said the city-parish won’t officially take ownership of the roads until the state has first rehabbed them into good condition.

Government Street, he said, will need repairs before the city-parish takes on its three-way plan. He said it’s a top priority for the city-parish, but couldn’t put a timeline on when work would begin.

Gordon Mese, a Government Street business owner who has long advocated for converting the road to three lanes, said the change would revitalize midcity, boost property values and help business owners.

“It opens the streets up to be safer for bikes and pedestrians, meaning more businesses are going to take a chance on Government Street and more people are going to bike and walk to that new ice cream shop or that new little restaurant,” he said.

Mese said he’s been pushing for the Government Street rehabilitation for 15 years, adding that “this is the best the conversation has ever been.”

“I’m more optimistic than ever because now they have no excuses,” he said. “Being a state road was always their main excuse and now their excuses are gone.”

Davis Rhorer, director of the Downtown Development District, said the city road transfers are more significant now with announcements such as the Water Campus, River Park Development and IBM.

“This has the potential to be an incredibly dynamic corridor,” Rhorer said. “I’m very happy the city is pursuing it.”

Rhorer, who has overseen projects on River Road when it was under state control, said state officials often don’t have the same agenda or priority in mind as the city.

“It’s a lot easier when it’s in the city’s hands,” he said. “They’ll have more say, and it’ll make things go faster.”

Guillory said it’s possible more state roads could be turned over to the city-parish; however, city officials will have to decide whether they want to continue accepting the long-term financial obligation of maintaining more roads.