Government Street has finally started to cut its calories.
Contractors started work earlier this month on the long-awaited and much-postponed "road diet" for a 4.2-mile stretch of the road that runs through Baton Rouge's urban core. While new restaurants and local retail stores have popped up along Government in recent years, high-speed traffic has remained a problem and the street can be hazardous for those trying to walk or bike.
The road diet will cut the number of vehicle lanes on Government from four lanes to three, with one lane in each direction and a center turn lane from East Boulevard to Lobdell Avenue. But the most heavily trafficked North Foster Drive to Jefferson Highway stretch will keep two eastbound lanes, have one westbound lane and include either a left turn lane or a two-way left turn lane along its distance.
The project will also substitute a roundabout for the traffic lights at the Government, Lobdell and Independence Park intersection. Additions of sidewalks and bike paths are also coming to Government.
Business owners on Government Street have had mixed reactions to the delayed work finally starting. Some are breathing sighs of relief, awaiting the day when customers can get to them without having to dart through traffic while making a left-hand turn. But others say they wonder whether less traffic on the road means fewer customers.
"In the short-run, I'm very, very concerned about it," said Jeff Herman, the owner of Tiger Deaux-nuts near the intersection of Government and St. Tammany Street. "It's going to take a lot of time to adapt to the changes, and it may even deter people from using the street, which as a doughnut shop owner is very, very concerning. But I think once people see how it benefits the area, in the long run, it will be useful."
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The state's Department of Transportation and Development is running the road diet. Spokesman Rodney Mallett said contractors began late last week to cut off roadways and sidewalks near Drehr Avenue and Evergreen Drive, moving eastbound on Government Street. Orange cones now line that expanse, and DOTD expects the work to take two years to complete.
The project will cost $11.7 million, which was the low bid from Barber Brothers Contracting Co. Federal safety funds amount to $5.4 million; the city-parish has kicked in $4.2 million in road transfer credits; the state has provided $1.1 million; and the project received $1 million of Americans with Disabilities Act funding.
Once the roadwork is complete, the city-parish will take over maintenance on Government Street. Government is one piece in an ongoing deal where City Hall is becoming responsible for state roads in exchange for monetary credits.
Unlike most other roadwork in Baton Rouge, the road diet is not a congestion relief project. DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett emphasized that Government is an abnormal crash location, where drivers are frequently rear-ended or sideswiped when they slow down or stop in a left lane to turn. Past state reports have shown that Government Street accounts for 270 crashes a year.
"I on-purpose avoid Government Street," said Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who lives in Mid City and represents the area. "It's just not functional."
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Wicker added that her young daughter dances at a studio on Government, and that she loves the idea of them walking and biking there. But she said with the high-speed of traffic zooming by, she would be too scared to walk there with a child.
Some who live near Government Street said they already walk and bike, but would do so more if it was safer.
"We already walk; we just don't like it," said Robert T Butler III, who lives in the Ogden Park neighborhood. "The cars are blazing at ridiculous speeds back and forth."
Butler said he is worried about the effect the road diet will have on local businesses that have taken a chance on Mid City, but that he is remaining optimistic.
Jeffery Leuenberger, who lives on Longwood Court, agreed. He said he usually walks to grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops and bars within a mile of where he lives. But he said it often feels unsafe because of how quickly cars are moving, and that it's not uncommon to see people in wheelchairs using the road because Government lacks accessible sidewalks for them.
Leuenberger called the road diet "completely overdue," and said he expects Government to become friendlier for all of its users, though extra traffic during rush hour could be one side effect.
Trimming Government down to three lanes was first floated before 2005. Planners dropped the idea when Baton Rouge's population boomed with new residents after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The idea resurfaced a few years after the storms, and by 2013, a miniature demonstration of the three-lane plan called "Better Block BR" happened one weekend. Former Mayor-President Kip Holden championed the project, saying in the spring of 2014 that it would be finished by the end of 2015, before delay after delay postponed the start of the work.
Camille Manning-Broome, senior vice president of the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence, said the Better Block BR experiment showed how successful the road diet could be. And she added that the number of businesses that have grown up on Government that try to cater to pedestrians and bike riders show the desire from the community for the street to mirror them.
"It encourages people to just not go to one spot and pick up and leave," said Matthew Shirley, who owns the building where French Truck Coffee is located on Government near Kenmore Avenue. "It encourages people to stick around and shop and spend money at multiple establishments."
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Shirley classified himself as pro-road diet, as did Anthony Kimble, who owns the Government Village Shopping Center and is co-developing the blighted Entergy site into a recreation and residential hub on Government Street.
Kimble said the road diet will likely be a huge shock for a city as sprawling and suburban as Baton Rouge. But he said has seen successful road diets elsewhere, and that reducing vehicle traffic will add long-term value for people redeveloping the residential community around the businesses on Government.
Tom Carville, who owns Carco Awards with his wife, Fran, was less enthusiastic. It's easy for people to walk to restaurants, but people usually leave his business on Government near Bellewood Drive carrying cases of trophies. His business depends on people driving to it and parking their cars, and he wondered whether people would go elsewhere for awards if Government becomes too much of a hassle to drive on.
"I'm not sure for regular retail, mom and pop stores, I don't think it will be as beneficial as it would be for a restaurant," Carville said about the road diet. "The impression I get from the name is that they're going to reduce the traffic flow along the street. Most retail people, I believe, like traffic flow along their streets."
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Clark Gaines, developer of the forthcoming White Star Market food hall, said any measure to increase foot traffic near them is a plus. White Star Market is expected to open this year on Government near Mouton Street, and Gaines said he is excited about the road diet.
"I'm hoping it encourages more people to come over to this side of town and park their car and walk up and down the street," Gaines said. "They do it for White Light Night by the thousands, so hopefully these changes will make it easier for people."