Some business owners consider Government Street restructuring plan bizarre, backwards _lowres

Advocate file photo -- A graphic rendition of the changes Mayor Kip Holden announced In March, 2014, as long-awaited plans to three-way Government Street and add bike and turn lanes.

Government Street business owners want change. They want road improvements, fewer pot holes, better curbs and some solutions to the growing traffic congestion on the increasingly busy Mid City road.

But some of these property owners, including people running businesses that have been located there for decades, don’t think the highly publicized “road diet” on Government is the answer.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden in 2014 announced with fanfare plans to reduce Government Street from four lanes to two, while adding a turning lane in the middle. The proposal also called for bike lanes and improved sidewalks.

The idea is to make the area more pedestrian and bike friendly, anticipating the changes would attract businesses and create a feel like Magazine Street in New Orleans. The plan, which has yet to break ground, has proven mostly popular with neighbors, planners and city officials.

This week, the state Department of Transportation and Development met with business owners to detail aspects of the plans and get feedback. At the meeting, where planners unveiled infrastructure upgrades like a roundabout at Lobdell and Independence Boulevard and grassy medians dotted along the turning lane, some business owners expressed their displeasure with the project.

James Jackson, who owns the space at 4367 Government St. that currently is leased to Rainbow Credit Center, said reducing the lanes was a bizarre and backwards step for an area plagued with traffic. When his family bought the property in the 1950s, he said the road used to be two lanes, and he credits officials with wisely making the call to expand the road.

“Why in the world did our forefathers decide to make a two-lane road into a four-lane road just to have it changed back?” he asked.

Several business owners interviewed said they don’t understand the logic of reducing lanes to improve traffic congestion. But planners say the designated turning lane will smooth out the stop-and-go nature of the roadway.

Cindy Hall, project manager with Stantec, the lead consulting company, said Government Street car accidents exceed the state average. Drivers use inside lanes as turning lanes, blocking through traffic. A designated turning lane will free up the outside lanes and improve safety, she said.

But others aren’t sure.

“I really think it’s going to have a negative impact on business,” said Milton LeBlanc, owner of Jay’s BBQ, which has been on Government since 1992. “At 5 o’clock, traffic gets dense. If you reduce it down to one lane in each direction, how many cars will actually get through the traffic signals?”

Wayne Daigle, owner of Wayne’s Hairstyling and Barber Shop on Government Street for 38 years, said he’s concerned about the bike lanes. He said the street is already so busy that encouraging cycling on the road could be dangerous.

Daigle said he’d like to see Government Street infrastructure improvements, but he is concerned that this plan isn’t the way to go.

Sean Braswell is a new business owner in the area, opening his Simply Joe breakfast shop four months ago. He said he supports the bike lanes because he has many neighborhood customers, but he also is concerned about reducing the traffic lanes.

“People can’t drive on four lanes, so how are they going to do better on three?” he asked. “I don’t understand how it’ll make it better. I love the fact that we’re looking to get Mid City to a different point, but I’m worried about how it’s going to affect us all.”

Other business owners expressed concern about the Capital Area Transit System buses that trudge along Government Street, contributing to the halting nature of the road because of the many bus stops.

There are currently more than 70 designated bus stops on Government Street. However, DOTD officials said they don’t expect CATS buses to be a problem because the buses only typically run once an hour, and only stop if a person is waiting. They also said they’re in talks with CATS to get the number of stops reduced.

But business owners noted that with a single lane each way on Government Street, CATS buses would completely block drivers behind them.

Many expressed concern that the construction on the road would divert enough customers from their businesses for long enough that it could hurt revenue.

“If the project goes through, my renters will probably leave,” Jackson said. “Construction will hinder people from getting in, and they’ll go out of business. That means I’m going to start losing rent per month.”

Gordon Mese, whose family has owned Garden District Nursery on Government Street for several decades, said the changes to Government Street likely appeal to some businesses more than others. Mese has long been a proponent of the plan and is a believer that it will attract more and better businesses to the area, which has for many decades been blighted in some spots.

“There will be some tenants who leave Government Street after this is done, but they will be replaced with tenants who are most likely paying more to be on the street,” he said. “At the end of the day, these are great investments. You have to ask why these new developments have happened in the past couple of years that didn’t happen for decades before that. They didn’t come out of no where.”

Blaze Ragusa, owner of Ragusa’s Automotive, said he’s come around to the idea despite earlier reservations.

“They’ve worked with me about my concerns about accessibility to my property to make sure I’m happy,” he said. “It’s going to be better for everyone, I think.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.