With the decision of state officials to borrow $600 million from future federal highway revenues to jump-start three big projects, the allocation of more than half the money to Baton Rouge's interstate system shows how big the capital city's congestion problem is.
The financing mechanism: Use federal bonds to essentially get an advance on federal dollars, then repay the money from yearly federal allocations over 12 years. They are called Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle Bonds, or GARVEE bonds. Over five years or more, $350 million will expand Interstate 10 from the Mississippi River bridge to the I-10/12 split. It's been a project long sought by engineers at the Department of Transportation and Development, but has provoked opposition from neighborhoods in the way.
In particular, that means the popular Perkins Road overpass district, where merchants have created a thriving locale of eateries and something closer to an urban "feel" in the generally sprawl-oriented capital city.
What's different? For one thing, DOTD says that more than 80 percent of the project — when finished, a new lane on each side, among other changes — can be built on existing rights of way. And as Adam Knapp of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber said Monday, concern about dislocations is somewhat balanced by the realization that traffic has to be addressed. He is right, and the choking of the city is obviously bad for business. When then-President Barack Obama visited a couple of years ago, he noticed the congestion on his way to an event.
It's a product of not only a lack of investment, but poor planning. The investment part isn't met by $350 million, either. Knapp noted that billions are needed for projects, including a new Mississippi River crossing. A lot more than the one project will be needed, obviously, and funding remains dicey with anti-tax legislators putting their political interests ahead of the needs of the people and the state. The result, according to the business-led Crisis coalition in Baton Rouge: The city ranks third-worst in the country among mid-sized cities in the category of average commuter annual traffic delay, at 47 hours per year.
The Baton Rouge area also ranks second-worst among mid-sized cities for the amount of annual excess fuel consumed per commuter (25 gallons), and No. 1 on the list for the amount of money congestion is costing the average commuter per year, at $1,262. Additionally, Baton Rouge ranks third-worst for cities for freeway travel reliability.
The last is not news, in particular, to those of us using the interstate highways in the region. BASF plant manager Tom Yura is among the Crisis coalition leaders. He welcomed the GARVEE bond issue, with a big "but."
“There’s no silver bullet to fixing the traffic mess in the Baton Rouge area — multiple major infrastructure projects are still needed. But addressing I-10 through the heart of the city has always represented an essential step, and we applaud this much-needed plan of action,” he said in a statement.
The governor's new plan is only a start.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.