That Baton Rouge has a traffic problem isn’t in dispute, but what has to be recognized is that the term “Baton Rouge” isn’t limited to East Baton Rouge Parish, or the 4 miles of interstate highway west of the I-10/12 split.
The nine-parish region includes areas with significant differences in terms of congestion, but roads and bridges spark disputes across the region. Little wonder that longtime politicos (Mayor-President Kip Holden, a black Democrat) and newcomers to elected office (U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a white Republican) have made traffic and congestion central to their concerns. Road funding has lately roiled meetings of the Livingston Parish Council, and the widening of the interstate in the inner city is about to divide the Metro Council in the city of Baton Rouge, especially if there’s eventual closure of the Washington Street exit, which is potentially a racially tinged fight.
Graves and Holden, like many others, want a long-term solution such as a new bridge — something that has to be worked out with the surrounding parishes. When Holden proposed a bridge and loop, some of the parishes balked.
While it’s easy enough for elected officials to flail at the state Department of Transportation and Development, the problems are intertwined: a lack of money, a lack of traffic alternatives and poor planning over decades.
Think of the funding challenges: It’s not just a problem of finding more than $1 billion in state or local money for a new bridge and highway loop, not even the $350 million for widening I-10 to the split just proposed (again) by DOTD. Even if the money were readily available — it’s not, and many politicians don’t want to associate themselves with raising taxes, even for these causes — traffic problems here go beyond the interstate system.
“A long-term plan must also include strategies that increase transportation options, including improved street connectivity and multimodal alternatives to automobile travel,” says an important new statement from CRISIS, a business-led group focusing on transportation policy.
The group’s main theme is shared by Graves — the need for a “comprehensive regional mobility plan.”
Unfortunately, a bundle of projects that would magically loosen the stranglehold of anti-tax politicians and voters on state and local levels requires sorcery, not just some new levels of insight about which projects are “regionally significant.” There is a huge commonality of interest among East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston in particular on these issues — but one cannot expect sound planning to overcome politics around here.
All major projects will take time; for a Mississippi River bridge, that means at least a decade, not just four years of a political term.
Holden’s projects in his Green Light Plan were approved in 2005, but some are still under construction; they represent a real advance, with voters agreeing to pay the freight. Despite those projects focused on improving connectivity on Baton Rouge streets, we’re a long way from reversing 40 years of bad street plans and neglect of public transit that the visiting experts say is obvious here.
CRISIS’ manifesto for the fall elections does not flinch from the money issue: “Just as a regional mobility plan requires a comprehensive approach, funding its components will require multiple strategies — including, if necessary, increased gas, sales or severance taxes dedicated to specific projects — to achieve a level of investment sufficient to meet the region’s backlog and capacity needs, improve safety and quality of life, and sustain economic growth.”
Leaving aside the demand for dedications — isn’t the Baton Rouge Area Chamber against that policy in the state budget? — the main obstacle to highway progress is politicians’ refusal this year, as in years before, to raise the state gasoline tax for DOTD’s budget. Nor does it help that Congress, as Graves recognizes, hasn’t raised the federal gasoline tax since 1993.
Until lawmakers make that ante, there is mostly a blame game around the transportation poker table in the capital region.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.