Traffic woes continue to be a major topic of discussion in West Baton Rouge, and Wednesday, April 30, the area’s business and government leaders joined the discussion during the WBR Chamber of Commerce April luncheon.
During the luncheon, Jamie Setze, Executive Director of the Capital Region Planning Commission, spoke briefly about traffic issues in West Baton Rouge and what the state’s Department of Transportation and Development is doing to alleviate those issues – which, he said, is nearly nothing.
“My concern is that DOTD isn’t taking it seriously that we need relief,” Setze said, adding that the organization he heads wants to see traffic problems eased in the parish. “I hear and understand the frustration… It’s just by chance I am moving to the westbank. For the last three months, I have lived daily crossing the intracoastal and share the frustrations of everybody on the westbank.”
Setze, who was the guest speaker at the luncheon, began the conversation by reading a letter from DOTD, written in 1986, to the West Baton Rouge Parish Police Jury. The letter was in response to the police jury’s request that a study be done for an LA-415/LA-1 connector.
“It does not appear that this facility would divert a great amount of traffic, and it definitely would not alleviate the present traffic congestion, which we have daily at the I-10 interchange with LA-1,” stated the letter, which was written on October 15, 1986. “This congestion is caused by the large amount of LA-1 northbound traffic that wishes to enter I-10 and proceed eastbound.”
The letter goes on to explain the police jury’s request stating that the route extension would provide an alternative route when LA-1, especially over the intracoastal canal, is forced to shut down due to accidents, icing or repairs.
The police jury also stated in their request that the extension would help the parish by opening a way in for commercial and industrial development.
DOTD’s response was that the construction of such a route extension would not be “cost productive,” as LA-1 is very seldom closed due to accidents, icing or repairs. It also said that DOTD wasn’t concerned with commercial and industry development in the area, as “opening areas for possible development is not properly the mission of the department.”
DOTD, in 1986, explained in their letter that the request for an LA-415/LA-1 connector would be recommended to be denied due to its very low priority.
“Let’s fast-forward to 2003 when the long range plan was updated for the statewide area; at that time, this project was placed at priority C. Priority C is an unfunded category in the statewide plan,” explained Setze. “(Last year) once again this project came up as priority project C.
“The last mega project meeting was in January. I, once again, made the case that this project was important and it should be in the funded category, and DOTD decided that it would stay at priority C, the unfunded category,” he said.
According to Setze, traffic on LA-1 has more than doubled since 1986, yet DOTD continues to say that an LA-415/LA-1 connector to alleviate traffic congestion on the north side of the Intracoastal Bridge is not a priority.
“(The Capital Region Planning Commission) believes it should be hire than priority C, which is an unfunded priority in the statewide plan. It is definitely effecting businesses – people’s decisions on where to locate,” Setze said. “We are working on coming up with some measures that show what the impact of that is on the community of the westbank.”
According to Kathy Stuart, Executive Director of the WBR Chamber of Commerce, the CRPC, which serves the 11-parish capital region, is a voluntary association of independent local governments who, through planning and communication, coordinate in resolving area-wide problems beyond any individual constituency's authority or competence. The CRPC is the Baton Rouge area's designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which each metropolitan area must have in order to carry out regional transportation planning efforts and receive federal highway funds.
Setze said that the CRPC, in a nutshell, does the federal required planning process for highways and transit for the greater Baton Rouge area.
During Setze’s speech during the luncheon, questions were raised from audience members concerning traffic woes, upcoming possible projects, and what residents could do to help make a project like an LA-415/LA-1 connector a priority to DOTD.
Traffic counts don’t lie.
“From the business and industry standpoint, our growth is happening right now. We’re adding thousands of contractors to this side of the river right now. We’ve got to come up with some short term solutions,” said Stacey Chiasson, Dow Chemical Company’s Louisiana Public Affairs.
Stuart agreed saying that the traffic congestion throughout the parish, including on I-10, going over the Mississippi River Bridge, continues to get more and more frustrating.
“What can we do as a business community? This isn’t just an Iberville/West Baton Rouge issue - this is a regional issue. You’ve got employees coming from across the river almost every day to come to our facilities over here,” Stuart said. “What can we do?”
Setze responded, saying that he didn’t believe DOTD would budge from their standpoint until the public outcry has become too much for them to bear.
“Until we generate a stack of comments this high, I don’t think DOTD is going to budge off of what they’re saying,” he said. “The gist of my comments today have been this – what DOTD said in the ‘80s, they’re saying today; they have not changed their position since the mid 1980s.”
He said that he, along with WBR Parish President Riley “PeeWee” Berthelot, met with the capital regional legislative delegation last week, bringing the WBR traffic issue to their attention.
“We have discussed the mega project list the state is putting forward in their long range plan. We are not in agreement with that project list,” Setze said. “The statewide plan, as it’s currently being drafted, says that it is a higher priority to start building a loop around Alexandria then around Baton Rouge; and a fourth bridge in Monroe – that that’s a higher priority.”
As suggestions of possible solutions chimed from audience members, a question about a survey was raised. Last year, a survey was taken among drivers in West Baton Rouge, a survey that some believed would result in an ease of traffic congestion, though nothing has yet come of it.
Berthelot explained that the survey, a toll survey, was to measure traffic congestion to see if a toll road would be the right solution for the traffic woes.
“The survey actually showed that… we do have a problem; and it’s a problem that occurs daily,” Berthelot said. “The problem with the problem is that it’s not a long term thing. It’s generally one and a half to two hours every day. In these toll (surveys), they want to be able to base the toll to get enough revenue to be able to build a project like this.”
Setze said that though the state’s transportation department doesn’t see it as a priority, the CRPC will do what they can to begin the process of easing the congestion in WBR.
“What we will do through the planning process that we control is make it a priority – whether the state’s long range plan will reflect ours, it’s up to them,” he said. “One key point to remember, though, is that our planning process is federally overseen and approved. The statewide plan is not.”
Setze said that he foresees DOTD’s plan/priorities being completely separate from the CRPC or the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s plans, adding that his organization can typically get federal approval, while DOTD is a state run program.
“What I believe potentially can happen in the near future is that the DOTD will have a plan different than what the metropolitan area’s is, but only one of those will have been vetted and approved by the federal government.”
In the meantime, says Stuart, now is the time for residents to be vocal about their frustrations.
“We have the largest legislative delegation in the state now. And it’s in the backyard of the capital,” Stuart said. “We all feel that same frustration. But they’re in a bubble when they’re in session when they’re over there; start sending them emails daily. We need you to send and share your message.”