Baton Rouge has 'worst traffic in the nation,' and CATS a 'disaster,' Congressman Garret Graves says _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Drivers sit in traffic on I10 east approaching the Highland Road exit during rush hour, Thursday, January 28, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves lamented the capital region’s traffic problem as “the worst in the nation” Monday, adding that Baton Rouge’s public bus system only adds to the congestion and needs to be completely dismantled.

Graves, one of the few freshman congressmen or women to sit on the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, weighed in on a variety of local transportation projects and issues — many of which are contingent on federal funding — Monday at the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

He also said Louisiana will be a strong contender for the $100 million in grant funding it applied for recently for local traffic projects.

“We have the worst traffic in the nation and empty buses don’t help any of the people paying for it,” he said. Graves, a Republican from Baton Rouge, said the Capital Area Transit System is a “disaster” and needs more variety in its fleet of vehicles to address the low occupancy on many buses during the day.

“If you only have two people on a bus, you could have them driving Toyota Tercels,” he joked. “You need smaller cars and vans.”

In the past year, CATS leaders have similarly lamented the quality of their fleet, saying many of their vehicles are past their useful life expectancy and prone to excessive breakdowns.

But Graves said he wouldn’t support fighting to get CATS more federal dollars for improved vehicles.

“We would love to help them out financially. But we’re not going to throw good money after bad,” he said. “Money is not the solution.”

He said he’d like to see CATS leadership consider a privatized model of service, moving forward.

“We understand Rep. Graves has some criticism of CATS, and we would like to reiterate our desire to sit with him and discuss his concerns and work together to develop viable solutions to make CATS the transit system that Baton Rouge deserves,” CATS Interim CEO Bill Deville said in a statement.

Graves also suggested Louisiana was well positioned to receive much of the $100 million requested by the governor for a federal FASTLANE grant.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced earlier this month the state officially submitted its request for the dollars, which would be designated for repaving and adding an additional lane for the 15 miles between the Interstate 10/Interstate 49 interchange and the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge. He’s previously said if the state receives a significant portion of the grant, it will free up funds dedicated to the project for others in the Capital Region, like the often congested Washington Street exit, which is the only place in the country where the interstate narrows to one lane.

Graves said the transportation and infrastructure committee that he sits on developed the criteria for the grant and he helped stack the deck in Louisiana’s favor.

“We put criteria in there for Louisiana,” he said. “We very much had the capital region in mind at the time.”

Graves also said he hadn’t made up his mind about whether plans Baton Rouge leaders have for a fixed-rail tram traveling between LSU and downtown is a worthwhile use of federal transportation funds.

The estimated 3-mile route, which will be about 6 miles of track for a round trip, is expected to cost more than $100 million and project leaders expect federal funds to play a major role.

Graves said he fully agrees that the Nicholson corridor needs to be revitalized and he believes that LSU and downtown should be connected. But he said it’s unclear at this point whether the tram project will emerge as a priority. It’s possible the project could end up competing for dollars specifically designated for rail projects, such as the New Orleans to Baton Rouge rail line, which has been in planning for several years.

“In regard to saying that’s the best investment of those funds, I just want to wait and see what other projects are out there and which ones make the most sense for that investment,” he said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.

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