There was a mix of both excited anticipation and fearful dread at the first meeting for the public to hear the plans to reduce the number of lanes on Government Street — a congested and dilapidated roadway that serves as the main artery of Mid City Baton Rouge.
Opponents of the plan say they just can’t understand why state and city planners would want to reduce Government Street from four lanes to three — one in each direction with a center turning lane — when the street already is the scene of frustrating traffic jams.
Advocates of the plan say they’re ready for a change and want to see an upgraded Government Street turned into a destination, dotted with thriving local businesses.
Thursday evening’s meeting, hosted at Our Lady of Mercy Church, drew hundreds of people who talked to — and sometimes argued with — project managers and representatives from the state Department of Transportation and Development.
“Right now, there’s traffic backed up five blocks back, and if we go to Lala Land like these people want and make these changes, it’s going to be 10 blocks back,” said Karen Kean, a Richland Avenue resident. “Sure, it’ll make it prettier, and I’m all for that, but this is not realistic. It’s idealistic.”
A so-called “Road Diet” has been floated among city planners for more than a decade, but the project became a reality in early 2014, when East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden announced the plan would be implemented. Primarily, Government Street will be reduced from four lanes to three, and bike lanes will be added along the sides. The busted up roadway will be repaved, curbs will be fixed, the sidewalk will be improved and grassy medians will be placed throughout the turning lane. DOTD also recently unveiled plans to build a roundabout at the Lobdell Avenue intersection.
But as plans have crept forward, more residents and business owners have come forward to express their concerns.
“I live off Lobdell, and it takes me 15 minutes to get to downtown (on Government Street),” said Janice Evans. “What’s it going to be like when you’re compressing all that traffic to just three lanes? I just don’t see that happening.”
Other residents and business owners say they’re concerned about the impact on side streets. Will relieving traffic on Government Street just push more cars onto residential side streets and onto thoroughfares like North Boulevard and Claycut Road?
Planners say that’s not the expected result. The turning lane is intended to smooth out the jerky stop-and-go traffic on Government Street, caused by an abundance of drivers blocking traffic by trying to make left turns. Bike lanes and sidewalks are expected to improve the livability of the area and draw in more shops and restaurants.
Kathleen Callaghan, who lives on Drehr Avenue in the Garden District, said she’s already pleased with the types of business that have opened on Government Street as a result of the announcement of the project.
“I’m disappointed that so many people are having a knee-jerk reaction to change and relying on emotions instead of facts,” Callaghan said. “I’m already seeing an improvement in the new businesses coming to Government. We’ve only had pawn shops and tattoo parlors up until now.”
Billie Alost, a cyclist who rode her bike to the meeting from the Bocage neighborhood on Jefferson, said she’s looking forward to having a safe way to get around Government Street, which is improving the overall connectivity of the city.
“I like the idea of having more safe places to cycle in Baton Rouge,” she said, adding that she and her husband often cycle from Jefferson Avenue to downtown Baton Rouge. “It feels crowded now. It can be so dangerous; there’s so much traffic.”
Beaux Jones, who splits his time between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, said he recently moved a block off Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans — a street that similarly received a road diet in recent years, going from four lanes to two lanes, with bike paths.
“Not only from a safety standpoint, but from a usability standpoint, it has revolutionized the experience of traveling from City Park to the (French) Quarter,” he said. “I see mothers with children, I see bike tours, all riding down and experiencing a part of the city they never experienced before.”
The Government Street project, estimated at $10 million to $13 million, will be funded with federal dollars. DOTD officials say they don’t know yet when they’ll break ground.