A massive infrastructure deal is in the works that will send tens of millions of dollars of transportation money flowing into East Baton Rouge Parish if the local government agrees to absorb responsibility for 98 miles of state roads.
The city-parish is thinking about accepting the terms and using the money for projects like the proposed downtown-LSU tram, roads around the under-construction Water Campus, the Green Light Plan and the Government Street road diet.
Other roads may change to accommodate more foot, bicycle and bus traffic. Local officials hope to bring the matter before the Metro Council before the end of the summer.
Many thoroughfares in Baton Rouge are actually owned and maintained by the Louisiana Department of Transportation — including all or portions of Perkins Road, Bluebonnet Boulevard, Siegen Lane, Highland Road, Nicholson Drive, Jefferson Highway and Old Hammond Highway.
In a 2013 report, the DOTD argued that state roads should be used to help farmers move crops and connect urban areas, not serve as a city’s infrastructure. To that end, the state is trying to unburden itself of many DOTD roads, especially in Baton Rouge.
But the state can’t sell off a roughshod, pot-holed street. Before DOTD can turn a state route over to a city or parish, the road must be in good condition. Earlier this year, drivers may have noticed that the stretch of Government Street west of Interstate 110 was repaved. The resurfacing was completed to prepare the road for transfer.
In 2014, the parish and state agreed to a small-scale transfer of about 11 miles of road including that stretch of Government, River Road north of the Interstate 10 bridge and a stretch of Nicholson Drive.
In exchange for taking over the maintenance of those 11 miles, DOTD gave the city-parish credit worth about $13 million that can be cashed in to pay for infrastructure projects. The cost to repave a road before transferring it to the local government is a separate matter and does not get taken out of the credit amount.
The city-parish has used some of the credit to study Perkins Road with an eye on possibly making improvements down the line once the city takes it over, said Steve Bonnette, the city-parish’s director of transportation and drainage.
Other credit is planned for use on extending Staring Lane further south to Nicholson and on improvements to Government Street, which is expected to include a road diet and a roundabout at its intersection with Lobdell.
If the Metro Council agrees to the larger, 98-mile road transfer agreement, the city-parish will likely get about $70 million in state infrastructure credit, said DOTD Deputy Secretary Eric Kalivoda.
The per-mile rate is less than the first deal because number of lanes, road composition and the quality of the road at the time of transfer also factor into the final value.
Bonnette’s first priority for the next round of credit is to improve and possibly replace roads south of downtown where the Water Campus is being built. The research facility expects to complete construction of its headquarters building next summer, so the city-parish is on the clock if it wants to fix the old roads before all the new commuters arrive.
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Plans for the rest of the credit are a bit more loose, and Bonnette emphasized that the Metro Council will still have to sign off on any decisions. However, some current suggestions include using the credits for the parish’s Green Light Plan projects such as the installation of an interchange on Interstate 10 at Pecue Lane.
The credit could also go toward funding the proposed tram, Bonnette said. The city-parish may be able to treat the credit as matching funds when it applies for federal grants that require a local contribution.
Local and state officials have spent the past year and a half hashing out the technical right-of-way issues and determining which segments needed to be brought up to standard, but Bonnette hopes to bring the deal before members of the Metro Council this month or in August. At that point, the council members will have the opportunity to discuss whether to accept the state roads and how to prioritize the DOTD credits, Bonnette said.
While the city will be on the hook for maintaining the new streets, there are some benefits of local control.
“DOTD is kind of constrained on what they can and cannot do on state highways. ... (City-parish ownership) allows us to go in and do things,” Bonnette said.
The city-parish can add on-street parking and post its own speed limits on locally-owned roads, Kalivoda explained. It can ban trucks that aren’t making local deliveries. And if the city-parish wants to install sidewalks, put in turn lanes, change the traffic lights, add bike lanes or otherwise alter the roadway, it doesn’t have to go through the state bureaucracy.
Perkins Road appears to be under consideration for changes, since the city-parish has already signed off on a study of the road. Bonnette said generally that he would like to improve access to businesses.
He also talked about trying to implement “Complete Streets” ideas in Baton Rouge. Complete Streets is a term used by the non-profit Smart Growth America which advocates for roads that incorporate sidewalks and crosswalks, dedicated lanes for bicyclists and public transportation and narrower travel lanes for cars.
The Government Street road diet is also intended to address some of those issues, though it has fallen years behind the mayor’s timetable, and the plans have changed. Nevertheless, by reducing the road from four lanes to three, city leaders hope to encourage more bicyclists and pedestrians to use the route.
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Nicholson Drive could also be in for changes. Part of the road was included in the original transfer agreement two years ago, but while the other routes in that deal are being repaved or about ready to be turned over, Nicholson is in a “holding pattern” until the city-parish is able to determine whether the road will need to be reconfigured to accommodate the proposed tram, Kalivoda said.
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Whatever course the transfer agreement may take, drivers won’t not see an immediate change.
“Nothing’s gonna happen overnight. ... It’s gonna take a number of years,” Bonnette cautioned.
Kalivoda estimates that it will take about a decade just to perform all the resurfacing to prepare the roads for transfer. But after the Metro Council votes on which routes to accept into the local system, the local and state government can begin discussing a timeline for cashing in the city-parish’s credits, since DOTD can’t provide all the compensation at once.
The amount of the credit is based on the cost of maintaining the roads in the transfer for a period of 40 years. Since the city-parish is looking to spend the money on other projects, it will have to pay for maintenance out of another pocket. The city-parish budgeted $10.9 million for road rehab in the city-parish last year, about 2 percent of the operating budget. However, Bonnette said, the pre-transfer resurfacings would go a long way to defray costs, and roads absorbed by the local government likely won’t have to be repaved for 15 to 20 years.
Ultimately, DOTD hopes to drive down the percentage of state-owned roads to fit the national average.
States vary widely — in the mid-Atlantic, the state governments of West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina all own more than 75 percent of all road miles, but next door, the state of New Jersey owns only six percent of roads.
DOTD is in charge of about 27 percent of all the road miles in Louisiana, and plans to get down to 19 percent — the national average. East Baton Rouge is not the only parish looking at transfer deals, but Kalivoda said that it will be unique for accepting so many at once if the Metro Council agrees to the current proposal.
Several suburbs are also looking to transfer roads, including the Prairieville and Gonzales area, the Denham Springs and Watson area and some of the riverside routes in West Baton Rouge Parish.
But while many state roads are in talks to change hands, others will remain under DOTD’s purview. The state is going to keep maintaining its rural routes and roads that facilitate long-distance travel including interstates, Airline Highway and Florida Boulevard.
In a few rare cases, local governments are planning to turn a road over to the state to maintain. The only example in East Baton Rouge is Staring Lane, which the city-parish intends to hand over to DOTD when the southern extension is complete.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.