The good news for traffic-weary Baton Rouge commuters is that everyone generally agrees there is a traffic problem and is on board with making improvements. The bad news? There’s little agreement about how the improvements should be prioritized.
A team of world-class IBM consultants who have spent the last three weeks studying the Baton Rouge transit landscape presented a list of traffic mitigation recommendations to a room filled with Baton Rouge’s top planning and transportation leaders on Friday in City Hall.
The consultants provided their transit expertise, valued at $500,000, to the capital region pro bono as part of the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge grant program. Baton Rouge was chosen as one of four U.S. cities to receive the benefits of the program this year.
Five IBM representatives, including two from IBM offices outside the U.S. — Ireland and Mexico — outlined what they see as the area’s greatest challenges and suggested solutions that could take place over the next two years.
The group did not make recommendations for specific construction projects but rather focused on governance structure, communication and data sharing. The solutions stressed greater collaboration among regional transportation and planning groups.
“I-10, Airline Highway, Siegen, Essen, Washington Street, we’ve heard about them all,” said Marie Wallace, an IBM consultant from Dublin. “But there’s no agreement about what’s the right solution. Is it the loop or the BUMP or something else?”
Wallace was referring to perennial talk of building a toll road traffic “loop” around Baton Rouge and the more recent and less expensive alternative of a toll road down Airline Highway to the U.S. 190 Mississippi River bridge.
She noted that the local government and transit groups have a variety of studies evaluating the impact of individual projects, but there were no studies that compared which of the projects would have the greatest impact.
Over the years, officials and transit groups have pursued a variety of long-term construction priorities aimed at targeting the capital city’s traffic woes.
One is the parishwide Green Light Plan, which includes dozens of individual road and highway improvement projects. There also has been talk of building a Baton Rouge Loop toll road around the parish, plans for a streetcar down Nicholson Drive connecting LSU to downtown, a plan to take Government Street from four to three lanes, a rail connecting New Orleans and Baton Rouge and the “BUMP” toll road down Airline Highway.
The team recommended setting up a data exchange so all of the traffic patterns collected and results of various studies can be shared and analyzed across greater platforms.
They also recommended creating a transportation governance board and a technology team, charged with collecting and analyzing the data, creating regional transportation policies and setting project priorities based on the data.
Setting priorities based on data analysis builds transparency and community trust, IBM officials said.
“Decisions are based on, not political reasons or for how long a problem has been identified, but truly on data,” said Maria Fernandez, IBM consultant from Briarcliff Manor, New York. “What would reduce the most traffic congestion? What would reduce the most number of accidents? We can objectively determine if Florida Boulevard or Bluebonnet (Boulevard) is the most effective.”
The governance board would also be in charge of identifying funding sources. Fernandez said having data-based recommendations helps applications “stand out” in the competition for federal and state funds for transportation projects.
The consultants also recommended the city hire a “chief innovation officer” who would work in the Information Services Department and set policies about data collection.
Wallace said the city-parish ultimately needs to invest in its “digital infrastructure” before its transportation infrastructure.
In the short term, she also suggested the city tap into social media so drivers have faster, more accessible ways to learn about traffic delays and to inform the city about traffic issues along their own commutes.
Mayor-President Kip Holden said the recommendations and observations were “eye opening” for him.
“Shame on us if this is just left to gather dust on a shelf,” he said. “The city is growing and businesses are moving to Baton Rouge, and transportation needs to be a top priority.”
He agreed that competing transportation priorities are confusing the forecast for how to address traffic issues.
Holden took aim at a plan dubbed BUMP, or Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan, that is being pursued by some Baton Rouge-area legislators. The plan touts an “inner loop” toll road by widening Airline Highway, and connecting Interstates 10, 12 and 110, U.S. 61 and U.S. 190.
Holden has expressed concern that the BUMP competes with plans for the Baton Rouge Loop, a proposed 85-mile toll road circling the capital region.
Holden said in an interview Friday that legislators behind BUMP have yet to deliver on promises to hold public meetings about the plan. He said business owners along Airline Highway have many concerns and unanswered questions about the impact that widening the highway and increasing the speed would have on their properties.
In 2010, the Legislature supported $5 million of state spending toward the loop. However, Gov. Bobby Jindal used his line-item veto to remove the funds.
Jindal appears to have some interest in the BUMP project. At the request of the capital region delegation, he agreed to request $3.5 million in his capital outlay budget for a feasibility study.