The state is preparing to install a high-tech message sign on La. 1 to give motorists an idea of how long they can expect to sit in traffic, but West Baton Rouge Parish officials are saying skip the sign and improve the road to make traffic flow more smoothly.
Parish Councilman Barry Hugghins said the sign that the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development wants to put up on the busy road is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“This is a good example of how dysfunctional DOTD is,” Hugghins grumbled. “Waste money to tell people how bad their misery is — I think they already know. I see this more as a sign of desperation that they don’t know what else to do.”
The travel time message sign’s installation, which will be near the Intracoastal Waterway bridge in Port Allen, is part of a $3.4 million project that includes five additional “dynamic message” signs to be installed throughout the Baton Rouge region, said DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett.
Dynamic message signs provide more-detailed, real-time traffic information to drivers about things such as traffic accidents, detour routes and road conditions while the travel-time sign gives estimated commute times between specific locations.
The overall project also includes installation of Bluetooth tracking sensors and cameras along major corridors in East Baton Rouge, Livingston, Ascension, Iberville, West Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee parishes.
The La. 1 travel time sign is costing taxpayers $64,000, Mallett said, and DOTD hopes to have all the signs functional by spring, including the dynamic message signs being installed elsewhere.
“The network of signs is an important technological breakthrough and is an advancement of the ‘Intelligent Transportation System’ that provides travelers across the state with a lot of valuable information,” Mallett said in an email.
The La. 1 sign will provide travel times from the sign’s location to the Interstate 110, U.S. 61 and U.S. 190 interchange. Mallett says its purpose is to herd drivers using La. 1 to get to the northern parts of Baton Rouge toward the old Mississippi River Bridge along U.S. 190.
“While the I-10 bridge is over capacity, the U.S. 190 bridge is underutilized,” he said.
But West Baton Rouge Parish officials, who are convinced the construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi River is the surest way to ease the daily traffic congestions along La. 1, believe the state should have instead budgeted the money toward more-sensible traffic relief efforts.
“You realize we need about $35 or $40 million to do the La. 1 Connector Route?” Hugghins said, referring to the proposed four-lane toll road connecting La. 1 to La. 415 that Parish President Riley “PeeWee” Berthelot has been trying for several years to get the state to partially fund.
“They’re going to spend (money) on a sign that’s not going to move anybody anywhere but tell them how bad their problem is?” Hugghins said. “If you were a fiction writer, you’d have trouble making this kind of stuff up.”
State officials have estimated the cost of a new bridge, which officials in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes say is what is really needed, at more than $800 million.
Mallett pointed said the travel-time sign is not an attempt to fix La. 1’s traffic woes. He said tackling that issue will take a long-term solution — such as the I-10 widening project, which is being studied by state leaders.
He also noted that past attempts to address traffic issues were not always received enthusiastically by residents on the west side.
“Three public meetings were held over the summer and this time there seemed to be more public support than the past attempts,” Mallett wrote. “The comments and information from those meetings will be presented to the public in the spring.”
Councilman Chris “Fish” Kershaw was a little less critical of DOTD’s effort but did say he wasn’t pleased to hear how much the state is spending on the sign project. However, he said he sees some merit in traffic message signs because they will give drivers the chance to make truly informed decisions when it comes to their daily commutes.
“I work in Baton Rouge; I’m going over the bridge almost every day,” Kershaw said. “If you tell me it’s going to be an hour to get to work, I’m probably going to turn around, go home and call in and tell my employer I’m going to come in later.”
Berthelot, the parish president, says only time will tell if the state’s push to get more cars on the U.S. 190 bridge will actually work.
“Traffic will be (on La. 1) regardless,” he said. “But for some people, once you cross the old bridge, depending on where you’re going, you might have to get back into traffic some way to get to your destination. If that’s the case, you might prefer to just sit in traffic.”
Berthelot adds, “The money they’re spending … looks like we could have come up with some better solutions.”
Parish officials said they are hopeful newly appointed DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson will make the necessary decisions toward fixing the region’s ever-increasing traffic woes.
Wilson, a 10-year veteran of DOTD and appointee of Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards, will assume the job amid Louisiana’s roughly $12 billion backlog of road and bridge projects.
“I don’t think he’ll come in on the first day, turn a switch and everything will be great,” Kershaw said, “but I think he’ll be as up front and helpful as he can be.”
Regarding Wilson, Hugghins said, “He’s got a real low bar to jump over because it’s going to be hard for him to do any worse.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.