A new pedestrian buffer zone to prevent traffic on Nicholson Drive from passing in front of Tiger Stadium kicked into gear earlier than planned Saturday night when fans began leaving before halftime once LSU had run up a 35-0 lead on the Sam Houston State University Bearkats.
Patrick McCarty, an LSU police officer, and several other officers started moving in barricades to block Nicholson at South Stadium Drive shortly before 9 p.m. after crowds already had been contending with Nicholson traffic.
As a result, contraflow — the use of both lanes of traffic for one direction of travel — on Nicholson southbound started early as many of the 100,338 in Death Valley didn’t hang around to see the Tigers finish the 56-0 rout.
But Baton Rouge and LSU police and LSU parking officials said Sunday that new pre- and postgame traffic and parking changes went well Saturday night, showing the concept works, though it may not have its sternest test until an SEC heavyweight hits Red Stick.
For the first time Saturday, LSU and area law enforcement officials implemented a series of traffic and parking changes intended to work hand-in-hand to move people and vehicles efficiently and safely on game days. The changes include a two-lane, postgame contraflow on Nicholson southbound; the postgame pedestrian buffer zone on Nicholson between North and South Stadium drives for departing fans; and prohibition of parking on the shoulders of Nicholson.
“It worked. It worked exactly the way we wanted it to. Well, maybe a little bit better,” said Sgt. David Wallace, Baton Rouge police incident commander for LSU football.
He said the early exiting crowds meant contraflow on Nicholson, which extended from South Stadium Drive to Bluebonnet Boulevard, could not be used to its fullest extent because there was not enough traffic flow to maintain it.
The contraflow process relies not only on dozens of officers to control intersections but also the momentum of heavy traffic. Wallace said the system may have been a little too proficient but, he said, it still showed contraflow on Nicholson provides a new outlet to relieve pressure.
Wallace said a Louisiana State Police helicopter flying over LSU’s campus clocked cars going 40 mph postgame on Nicholson, which is typically an area of gridlock.
“We have never seen it like this,” Wallace said officers in the helicopter told him. “But the only reason why it succeeded is the public is working with us and not parking on Nicholson.”
Wallace said officers and wreckers made their presence known, as promised, starting at 5 p.m. Friday to prevent parking on the shoulder of Nicholson, but he said only five vehicles were towed, and no accidents were reported.
The loss of those spaces, along with a new, nearly 10,000-seat addition to Tiger Stadium, also had consequences as public parking filled up about an hour before kickoff.
Adam Smith, director of parking operations for the LSU Athletic Department, said arriving fans were sent off-campus to park. Smith said this happened last season as well.
Though 2,300 spaces were added this year, the campus had been down about 4,000 spaces due to campus construction over the past few years. LSU officials are looking for more spaces.
“We need some more. We want some more. It’s not something new,” Smith said.
Some fans who parked in the new 800-lot parking area on the golf driving range off Gourrier Avenue said they got home quickly once they left long lines in the parking lot.
Kevin Messina, 47, who lives in Baton Rouge’s Shenandoah neighborhood, prepared to leave the parking lot about 10:15 p.m. Saturday with four members of his Boy Scout troop and another man. The Scouts had been ushers for the game.
Messina, who is a Scoutmaster, reported Sunday seeing some of the same things Wallace saw: Traffic moved fast on Nicholson, but use of both lanes in the Nicholson contraflow was spotty.
“I think it was good. I think there weren’t enough people using the double lanes. I think people were afraid to do that,” Messina said.
The contraflow and regimented exit plans from parking lots also created unusual sights from the normal helter-skelter of postgame at LSU.
Traffic leaving most parking lots off Skip Bertman Drive were routed toward River Road and then back down Gourrier Avenue to Nicholson, where traffic could go right onto Nicholson southbound or across Nicholson and onto Burbank Drive.
That fact, combined with the pedestrian buffer zone, which blocked southbound traffic on Nicholson, meant Nicholson between South Stadium and Gourrier was nearly devoid of traffic and eerily dark for about an hour and a half even as tens of thousands were trying to head home.
About 10:25 p.m., men peddling two pedicabs with couples in the back cruised down both lanes of Nicholson southbound side by side, unbothered by motorized traffic.
It could have been a nighttime cruise down a country lane if not for the shining red brake lights in the distance at Gourrier and Nicholson hinting something else was at work.
About five minutes later, the pedestrian buffer zone was removed, Nicholson southbound was reopened, and traffic filled Nicholson.
Jamie Templet, 40, of St. Amant, said it took him and his family 45 minutes to get home after leaving campus about 10:15 p.m. from the golf course parking lot.
“I think, all in all, it worked out fine. I think traffic was always moving,” Templet said Sunday.
“It wasn’t like you were sitting still as in years past, where you just sit there for 30 minutes to 45 minutes trying to get out of the parking lot and then just get on the road and sit.”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.