Thursday, January 17, 2008

More BR loop meetings

The Advocate* reports that community meetings will continue on the loop--which comes as no surprise--to be held in late February and early March in the parishes around here. These types of meetings have gone on for several months, in a process of presenting information to the public and receiving feedback in order to eliminate choices from the possible routes. Most recently, the routes in the area of Port Vincent and French Settlement have been eliminated to preserve those areas, which are claimed by Ascension Parish to be historically important. (Personally, I don't know enough about these areas yet to agree or disagree... anyone care to shed some light on that?)

Everyone in Baton Rouge has heard of the loop. For those who live elsewhere, it's a highway project that will split off from I-10 and I-12 east of BR, traveling west, to circumvent the city to the south and north respectively, cross the Mississippi (at new bridges), then join back up with I-10. The goal is that traffic on the interstate that doesn't need to pass through BR will take one of the bypasses so that area residents will have to deal with less congestion.

5-parish area with interior and exterior limits of project.

Of course, the root of the problem is that people who live in and around BR use the interstate to get around town, not to mention that the city has developed in such a way that everything is spread out and people in suburbs need to travel some distance to get to work (or the mall, etc.). Furthermore, this development wasn't centrally planned, so things don't always connect well, intersections are not necessarily well-designed, and so on. We refer to "using surface streets" as the alternative way of getting around, say when traffic is really bad on the interstate. So our section of the interstate system has been (unnecessarily?) burdened poor urban planning. Combine this with recent population growth--including a post-Katrina surge of something like 20,000 (according to the state) to 50,000 (according to EBR city-parish)--and demographic trends of suburbanization, and our traffic has really become a mess.

Many people support the loop, but it is hardly uncontroversial. I'm not sure how to feel about it, myself, but I hardly think there are many other feasible options. On the one hand, it should divert a lot of traffic, especially 18-wheelers, and relieve some of our congestion. On the other hand, it's slated to take 8-10 years to develop at a cost of $4 billion. That's a long time to wait, and a lot of money to spend--is it worth it? Furthermore, it seems to me that the process of route planning has been fraught with NIMBYs, many of whom are in support of the loop but don't want it near them. It's hard to blame them; I would probably feel the same way. The residents of Hoo Shoo Too Road, as an example provided by the BR Business Report, moved to the swampy area on the Amite River precisely for a closeness to nature that the loop would disrupt.

Possible corridors, with eliminated areas in red.

By the way, the loop is slated to be funded by toll roads, something unprecedented in Louisiana (to my knowledge) that I don't think will go over well.

Of course, the best solution--and one that would be very obvious to residents of other cities--would be investment in public transportation infrastructure and then greater use of it by residents. The bus system as it exists now is judged as deeply inadequate by many, reportedly running very late (bad traffic doesn't help!). But if there could be more buses, routes, stops, and so on, we would have something much better--or hell, a light rail system would be great. The problem with this is that our culture down here is extremely resistant to the idea of public transportation. Seemingly everyone is attached to their SUV/truck/car and the sense of independence that it gives, gas prices be damned. Even if there were vocal support for public transportation, it would probably be with the hope that more other people used it, leaving the roads clear. So basically, barring a huge cultural shift (caused by prohibitively high gas prices?), solving this problem through public transportation is, sadly, not feasible. Technically possible, but culturally incompatible.

So we are stuck with the loop, for better or worse. It's my feeling that the city's policymakers, from a pragmatic perspective, really have no other choice--they can't do nothing about traffic, nor can they realistically try to fix it with public transportation (it would be the end of their careers and ultimately a poor investment). I imagine that, once it's finally built, it will help, but more as a stopgap measure than as a relatively permanent, sustainable strategy. After all, it will clear up the interstate around BR some, but what about all of our other traffic problems? College, Essen, Perkins, and Bluebonnet aren't part of the interstate. The outlook for our transportation system is pretty grim, with money being so short (see the GBRBR article linked above).

So is there something to do with large-scale impact besides the loop or better public transport that would fix our traffic? Is the loop necessary? Is improved public transportation [that gets used] a more feasible idea than I make it out to be? Should this money be spent differently?

* In this blog, "The Advocate" will always refer to the Baton Rouge newspaper rather than the well-known magazine, unless explicitly stated.

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