When bike trails and other facilities serving cyclists and pedestrians do happen in Baton Rouge, they tend to come from a grab bag of organizations such as BREC, the Department of Public Works or even the Downtown Development District.
One of the expectations to come out of the Future BR, the city’s update of its comprehensive development plan, is a true bicycle and pedestrian master plan to help coordinate activities.
For example, BREC has identified several off-street trail projects in its Capital Area Pathways Project. One of those is a 2.25-mile, multi-use path from Siegen Lane to Bluebonnet Boulevard along Wards Creek. The $2 million trail — which would include a 350-foot pedestrian bridge — would connect nodes like St. George Catholic School and the Mall of Louisiana. Eventually, a spur along Dawson Creek would connect the trail to Perkins Rowe on Perkins Road at Bluebonnet.
The project has been in the planning stage for at least three years, slowed by complications related to the Mall of Louisiana, said Ted Jack, assistant superintendent at BREC. However, BREC officials anticipate starting construction this year.
Closer into town are plans for the 2.7-mile Downtown Greenway, a mostly off-street pedestrian and bike trail that will connect City Park with Memorial Park, linking neighborhoods like downtown’s Beauregard Town.
The project is being planned by the Downtown Development District with an estimated cost of $7.4 million to $12.1 million. The Downtown Greenway project is being worked into the overall Future BR master plan, said Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District.
Also, the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority is pursuing grant money that would extend the Downtown Greenway into north Baton Rouge and connect it with Independence Park.
Future BR would hopefully tie all of these projects — and others — into a unified transportation plan with a strategy to not only link them, but fund them as well.
Not that this hasn’t been done before. In 1996, the city drafted its Bicycle Pedestrian Plan, which inventoried bike paths and bike lanes, and established several objectives. Those included establishing:
A continuous funding source for bicycle path projects.
A bicycle/pedestrian subcommittee to function within the Capital Region Planning Technical Advisory Committee.
A program of projects for implementation.
To some degree, some of these objectives have been met. The Baton Rouge Metropolitan Planning Organization Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meets regularly.
Also, BREC has a $4.2 million fund specifically earmarked for trail development. Half of the money is intended for off-street, multi-use paths like the Wards Creek trail, with the other half of the money dedicated to constructing bike or walking paths within city parks, said Jack, the BREC official.
However, circular paths in city parks are often dismissed by bike enthusiasts, who say these do not meet the dual-purpose role of offering both recreation and actual transportation, like a path that connects residential areas with employment or commercial locations.
“I don’t really think of myself as a recreational rider,” said Noelle Allison, who mostly uses a bicycle to transport her kids to school and shop for groceries.
Planning and building bike trails that connect different parts of town can be as complicated as building a road, say planners. Like roadways, they require negotiating with often dozens of landowners to gain property rights of way. Complicating matters, the projects may meet resistance from people unwilling to open their neighborhoods to outsiders on bikes, say planners.
“They said, ‘Well, this will cause crime,’” said Jack, recalling one of the common refrains he hears when the idea of linking neighborhoods with trails gets proposed. That is why he advises starting with a modest project like the Wards Creek Trail, hoping it will earn community buy-in, and then allow the city to plan more trail projects.
“Once it’s built, and they have about a year of it, they’ll be asking for more,” said Mark Martin, a member of Baton Rouge Advocates for Safe Streets.
With the Wards Creek trail’s cost coming in at more than $2 million, it’s hard to say how there might still be money left for the other trails, Jack said, given BREC only has about $2 million for these types of trail projects.
“There are good grants that can be used to help with some of these trail projects, but the grants generally are small in dollar value, so you are not able to build very much trail each year with them,” he added.
“The CAPP (Capital Area Pathways Project) trails we discussed around the Mall of Louisiana will require most of the funds for connectivity,” Jack said.
Some of the other BREC projects are an extension of the Wards Creek trail to the cluster of medical facilities around Essen Lane and a trail head connecting the Farr Park Equestrian Center on River Road to the extended Mississippi River Levee Bike Path.
Trail projects like the one planned for Wards or Dawson creeks are nice, say bike riders. However, a single project still stops short of the kind of comprehensive, long-range bike transportation planning the 1996 plan proposed. The Future BR plan stresses the need for a citywide bike plan, and a funding structure, not unlike other cities and, in some cases, cities smaller than Baton Rouge.
Fayetteville, Ark., another Southeastern Conference town — with a population of about 70,000 residents — has a comprehensive alternative transportation plan and builds two to three miles of new, off-street, multi-use paths a year, said Matt Mihalevich, Fayetteville trails coordinator. (Another directive often repeated in the 1996 plan was the formation of a trails coordinator within the Department of Public Works. In 2006 the city hired Melissa Guilbeau as its “urban transportation coordinator,” said Bruce Wickert, chairman of the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Planning Organization Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Guilbeau left in 2009 and has not been replaced.)
Fayetteville’s trail budget is about $1.3 million annually, funded in part by the city’s transportation bond program and grants. Fayetteville has 18.5 miles of these trails. They are often touted as quality-of-place selling points as the city jockeys to position itself as an attractive place for young professionals conscious of city amenities like trails, Mihalevich said.
Those types of amenities seem to be important to Baton Rouge’s residents as well. A March 2010 survey of BREC patrons shows walking and biking trails as a top concern.
“Anecdotally, there are more people riding bicycles than ever before,” Martin said.