Tired of being stuck in traffic, west bank residents want fewer studies, more action on I-10 gridlock _lowres (copy)

Advocate file photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Aerial of eastbound traffic on the New Bridge in Baton Rouge in September 2015 as drivers navigate around a stalled 18-wheeler approaching the Washington Street exit at bottom left.

State and regional planning officials unveiled a new push Tuesday to get commuters to try carpooling, transit and other alternative means of getting back and forth to work as major I-10 upgrades loom.

Concerned that Baton Rouge’s notorious gridlock will be that much worse during the construction, planning officials have launched a $1.5 million they dubbed Commuter Krewe of Louisiana to encourage drivers to consider ride sharing and other alternatives.

The three-year program will replace the former Geaux Ride car-pool program with better funding, a new, social media-style car-pool and transit matching software and an improved push to get major employers in the region to participate, officials said.

The effort faces an uphill battle as residents of the Baton Rouge area remain wedded to their cars. Census estimates from 2016 show that between 82 percent and 84 percent of commuters ride alone to work each day in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes.

The percentage of people riding alone in East Baton Rouge actually rose 2 percent between 2013 and 2016, to 84 percent, census data show. The parish had 25,555 commuters in carpools in the 2016 estimate.

In West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes, where many of those traveling for work cross the clogged I-10 Bridge over the Mississippi River, 89 percent ride alone, census estimates say.

Darryl Gissel, chief administrative officer for city-parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, said area leaders are trying to find ways to reduce the number of cars and trucks on the roads. The state Department of Transportation and Development, he noted, is gearing up for a $350 million project to widen I-10 between the bridge and the I-10/I-12 split.

Earlier this year, DOTD officials announced that the project, which will use federal bonds for funding, is expected to start in 2019 and last five years. DOTD has already started another $72 million widening project on I-10 between Highland Road and La. 73 in Ascension Parish that is prompting lane closures.

"You’re going to have huge, huge road projects, and I think what DOTD is attempting to do, with everyone’s partnership, is to jump ahead and give people alternatives, because we know that the traffic remediation’s going to have to be huge while those projects are going on," Gissel said.

Gissel added that Commuter Krewe will be matched with transit offerings from the Capital Area Transit System and with efforts by employers to create staggered work hours to ease rush hour pressures. He said the city-parish is looking at that option.

Commuter Krewe is a joint effort of DOTD and the Capital Region Planning Commission. DOTD is using Metropolitan Planning Organization fund dollars for the program, said Brandie Richardson, DOTD spokeswoman.

Unveiled in 2015 with similar hopes of encouraging carpooling to lessen Baton Rouge traffic and improve air quality, the Geaux Ride program met with limited success. The program had around 500 to 600 registrants before they were recently moved over to Commuter Krewe, a planning commission official said.

But J.T. Sukits, the planning commission’s transportation alternatives coordinator, said the breadth and funding behind Commuter Krewe has never been tried before in a program designed to encourage car-pooling.

The program has a slick, carpool application that allows users to match locations, work times and special concerns with commuters in the Baton Rouge area, according to Commuter Krewe’s website. Similar to the map-based software seen with Uber or Lyft, riders are eventually led to a map that will display the commuting route and options from which to choose, such as transit, a carpool or even a biking partner, the website says.

Sukits said Commuter Krewe will be working with human resources departments of state agencies, LSU, Southern and major private employers to encourage their employees to sign up. State government alone has 9,000 employees working in East Baton Rouge Parish, said Jacques Berry, spokesman for the Division of Administration.

Sukits added that the effort will try to overcome some road blocks to car pooling, such as by parents who want to be able to get home when there are problems with their children. Commuter Krewe will offer guaranteed rides home for emergencies. Gissel said that part may involve offering Uber, the ride-sharing business, at a reduced rate.

The program is also going to try a little showmanship.

Gissel, DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, Division of Administration Commissioner Jay Dardenne and CATS CEO Bill Deville were on hand Tuesday morning at DOTD headquarters next to I-110 to talk about the program and unveil a city-parish car covered with promotional logos for Commuter Krewe.

“It’s going to be on the street,” Gissle said of the car. “It’s just going to be all over.”

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.