Guest Column: Elizabeth Thomas: The solution to Baton Rouge’s transportation system can be found by embracing innovation and looking towards the future _lowres

 

Ask any resident about Baton Rouge’s greatest challenge, and traffic is sure to rank near the top. And with good reason. Our road and highway system isn’t just about how long it takes to get from one side of town to the other. It’s the backbone of any community’s infrastructure.

As we seek improvements to our own transportation system, I would encourage fellow Baton Rougeans to remember that solutions will require us to see beyond the present. The solutions we develop today must be informed and inspired by the trends that are shaping tomorrow.

Crumbling infrastructure and funding shortfalls are at the forefront of federal policy concerns, as well as the state level. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently released “Beyond Traffic: U.S. DOT’s 30-year Framework for the Future.”

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will use his appearance at the Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in downtown Baton Rouge on Nov. 4 to speak further about the findings of the report and highlight the trends that will shape our national transportation system over the next three decades. He’ll also point out the policy choices we face if the United States wants to reclaim its status as a world leader in transportation.

One of the big takeaways is that unless we think beyond just the number of cars we can cram onto roadways, we’ll never be able to develop the next generation of systems that connect people, economies, ideas and opportunities.

According to “Beyond Traffic,” intercity rail-line use has grown by more than 50 percent across the country since 1993. Demand for public transit is at its highest point in 50 years. More Americans are walking to their destinations, and the number of bicycling commuters has doubled in the past decade.

Despite all this, the Federal Highway Administration predicts that roadway traffic will increase by as much as 28 percent by 2045, and officials expect the increase will disproportionately impact fast-growing metro areas such as Baton Rouge.

As Foxx makes clear in the report, our approach to transportation — both what we build and how we pay for it — is anything but current. What worked 30 years ago doesn’t work today, and it certainly won’t work 30 years from now.

Baton Rouge has taken some steps in the right direction. Creation of the seven-parish Super Region Rail Authority marked a watershed for the state in terms of seeking regional solutions to transportation and economic growth.

In addition, the recently formed CRISIS coalition — Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions — is focused on connecting workers to jobs and advocating for data-driven project prioritization, also on a regional scale.

Those developments, along with recent investments in our transit system, passage of the Complete Streets policies and increasing awareness of the ways in which transportation choices affect our economy, health and quality of life all mark signs of progress.

No one enjoys seeing our roadways turned into parking lots twice a day. But solutions will require a new way of thinking and building infrastructure that attracts visitors, talent and investment to Baton Rouge because it’s a great place to live, work and play.

I encourage everyone to get involved. Now is the time to urge our leaders to embrace innovation and to develop a true multi-modal, regional transportation plan that offers choices, connectivity and convenience across the entire regional network.

Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas is president and CEO of the Center for Planning Excellence.