Government Street facelift excites area residents, businesses

Government Street, well known for its stop-and-go traffic and bumpy surface, is about to get a major face-lift that business owners and residents say will vastly improve the quality of life in the area and boost business.

Mayor-President Kip Holden announced Wednesday morning in front of Baton Rouge Magnet High School that the city-parish is kicking off the much anticipated road project this year.

The four-lane road that runs east and west through the heart of Baton Rouge will be reduced to three lanes from Interstate 110 to Lobdell Avenue, with the center lane serving as a left turn lane. There also will be a dedicated bike lane along the route.

Construction is estimated between $6 million and $8 million, with 100 percent of costs being covered by state funds, Holden said.

The project is expected to be complete before the end of 2015.

While shrinking Government Street from four to three lanes may seem counterintuitive for improving a congested roadway, planners have said the dedicated turn lane will keep cars moving while reducing car crashes.

Dedicated bike lanes and sidewalks, meanwhile, are expected to take some cars off the roads as more people walk or cycle to their destinations, planners say. They say it will provide easier access from nearby neighborhoods to businesses located on Government Street.

“I believe these improvements will bring an exciting new energy to one of Baton Rouge’s truly great streets,” Holden said.

The targeted area for the road project on Government Street carries about 24,000 vehicles a day, Holden said.

It is often congested due to lanes being blocked by vehicles waiting to turn left.

Government Street has about 270 crashes per year, mostly rear-end crashes and side swipes, according to state crash reports.

The project is being made possible through a special road transfer program in which the state turned over 11 miles of state roads to local control, including Government Street from Jefferson Highway to I-110.

The city already owned Government Street from Jefferson Highway to Lobdell Avenue.

The city also took control of parts of River Road and Nicholson Drive in anticipation of major projects expected to spur development.

The Government Street project will be the first to benefit from the state transfer program.

“I can’t think of a better place to start than with a road I believe will make a major difference in revitalizing midcity,” Holden said.

In exchange for taking over the roads, the state gave the city-parish $13 million in maintenance fund credits, which will be applied to the Government Street rehab.

Midcity business owners, residents and cyclists expressed optimism that the changes would increase property values and attract business to an area that long has been economically stagnant.

Jim Urdiales, a midcity resident, said the investment in the core of Baton Rouge could be a major catalyst for growth in the city while attracting new business to the area.

“Property values are going to go up; we’ll see more investment in businesses,” said Urdiales, who owns Mestizo’s restaurant on Acadian Thruway. “I have a dual interest because this is not only where I live, but as a business owner, this may be someplace I want to invest in, so I’m beyond excited.”

Gordon Mese, owner of Garden District Nursery on Government Street, has been a vocal proponent of the project for decades, noting the importance of the urban Baton Rouge corridor.

“If there’s a piece of property for sale on Government Street, you better buy it today, because it just went up in value,” he said.

Redeveloping Government Street connects many major projects happening across the city, such as the IBM development downtown, the Water Campus down Nicholson Drive and the new Main Library in old Goodwood, Mese said.

Marsanne Golsby, a resident of the adjacent Ogden Park neighborhood since 2006, said Government Street changes would strengthen the sense of community for all of the neighborhoods that spill onto Government.

“It will improve our quality of life and be good for the economy,” she said. “It gives us our own little Magazine Street.”

Golsby said Ogden Park residents are committed to supporting local businesses, such as Radio Bar and other Mid-City shops.

She said bike lanes will improve access to all the businesses, adding “crossing Government Street on a bicycle is a nightmare” in its current configuration.

The owner of Mid City Bikes, Travis Hans, said he benefits as both a cyclist and a Government Street business owner.

“I’m very excited, because as someone who has ridden every street in this city for many years, this is the one piece of street I always avoided,” Hans said. “I always found it very ironic that my shop ended up here.”

Beaux Jones, a board member for Bike Baton Rouge, said the announcement was a major win for cyclists. Even more significantly, he said, establishing designated bike lanes on such a major thoroughfare is bound to encourage people who haven’t previously biked to give it a try.

“This is going to give people who have never been on a bike in Baton Rouge an opportunity to ride along Government Street, and the businesses and neighborhoods are really going to see a benefit from that,” he said.

“It’s unbelievable how close we are to being great, because of this one project,” Mese said.

Government Street had a 40-mpg speed limit, and it’s too soon to say whether the speed limit will have to be reduced, said Mike Bruce, a contracted administrator for Holden who specializes in transportation.

Bruce said it’s likely the speed limit could remain the same.