Some skeptical in Walker over state proposal to build nine roundabouts in 2.5 mile stretch _lowres

 

Walker’s main highway is slated for significant improvements in the coming months, although some city officials remain skeptical of the design.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has proposed a series of nine roundabouts along a 2.5-mile stretch of La. 447, known locally as Walker Road, between Burgess Avenue and Buddy Ellis Road.

Construction of two of those roundabouts at the Interstate 12 ramps was let for bid earlier this month, and DOTD is working to finalize the $6.7 million contract with Kort’s Construction Services, of Covington, spokeswoman Bambi Hall said.

The rest of the roundabouts will be phased in as funding becomes available following the completion of an environmental assessment for the highway and its I-12 overpass, Hall said.

Walker will be the first city in the Baton Rouge area to have interchange roundabouts, according to DOTD records. Construction of a similar design is underway at I-12 and U.S. 51 Business in Hammond. Others are planned for I-12 at Juban Road and I-10 at La. 30.

Modern roundabouts move traffic through a circular route without traffic lights, allowing a continuous flow of vehicles. They are said to be safer than typical intersections.

Walker Mayor Rick Ramsey, who has been skeptical of the state’s plans for his city’s commercial corridor, said the roundabouts should not be built until the highway’s two-lane overpass is widened. But funding for the overpass — a project expected to cost $10 million to $15 million — is still a few years away, he said.

Traffic routinely backs up there in the afternoons from the time South Walker Elementary School, on nearby Milton Road, dismisses until the 5 p.m. traffic subsides.

DOTD traffic models presented at a public meeting in December 2013 indicated the roundabouts would improve traffic flow on and off of the interstate ramps, but some city officials remain unconvinced.

City Councilman Tracy Girlinghouse said DOTD “can move all the traffic in the world, but if it still bottlenecks at the overpass, it’s not going to make any significant difference. Like sand through an hourglass, it’s only going to flow through at a certain rate, and that’s the problem.”

Girlinghouse also remains skeptical of the state’s plans to add another seven roundabouts along the highway.

Early designs, which are still under review, Call for roundabouts at La. 447’s intersections with Burgess Avenue, Florida Boulevard, Fern Street/Aydell Lane, Stine home improvement store, Wal-Mart/Winn-Dixie, O’Donovan Boulevard at Our Lady of the Lake and Buddy Ellis Road, plus the two at the I-12 ramps.

That would put six roundabouts, averaging a quarter-mile between them, in the commercial corridor north of the interstate.

“If they wind up doing them all, it’s going to be like Groundhog Day,” Girlinghouse said, referring to the 1993 comedy in which Bill Murray’s character is caught in a time loop, repeating the same day again and again.

Ramsey said the result would be disastrous for businesses located along the highway.

“We’ve made our position very clear: multiple roundabouts through the business district would be devastating to Walker,” Ramsey said.

The mayor said he could envision roundabouts being helpful in a more limited number — perhaps a combined one for Florida Boulevard and Burgess Avenue, another at Our Lady of the Lake and a final one at Buddy Ellis, he said.

“It’s not that I’m against roundabouts. It’s just that they’re proposing too many of them,” Ramsey said.

Councilman Jonathan Davis said the state’s plan to phase in the roundabouts will let everyone see how they work without committing to them all at once.

“If it negatively affects traffic, the state may decide it’s not a great idea,” Davis said. “But if it continuously works better and better, maybe roundabouts will be the answer we’ve been looking for.”

Davis said the roundabouts should make it easier for drivers headed to any of the stores or eateries along the highway because they will no longer have to wait in the center lane for a chance to turn left.

“I think that’s why the state wanted to incorporate them,” he said. “They’ve been tested in a few other places, and they’ve been pretty successful.”

Business owners who attended the December 2013 public meeting were more dubious about the plans. The number of roundabouts, coupled with a concrete barrier in the median and only a few restricted U-turn crossings, drew a lot of concern about customer counts and the potential impact on sales.

April Wehrs, executive director of the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce, said business leaders have met with several officials, including the mayor and state Sen. Dale Erdey, to voice their concerns. Whether their comments will lead to changes in DOTD’s plans remains to be seen.

The chamber has not taken an official stance on the interchange roundabouts, Wehrs said, “but obviously we support whatever will ease congestion, contribute to safety and allow for commerce. The bottom line is the money is there for that piece of the puzzle, and I think everybody has conceded that’s why they’re starting there.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.