Slidell officials are fretting over a state proposal to widen part of U.S. 11, including a narrow Depression-era bridge over the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks, saying they fear the effort to improve traffic flow could have the opposite result.
The state Department of Transportation and Development unveiled tentative plans for the highway at a meeting at Slidell Junior High on Tuesday night before a crowd of about 30.
Slidell officials were not happy with what they saw, especially the elimination of left-hand turns at six intersections along the stretch of highway in question.
Mayor Freddy Drennan said the only time the state department talked to Slidell officials was to ask if they wanted a new bridge or an at-grade crossing at the railroad tracks. City officials said they wanted a bridge, Drennan said, but the state never sought further input.
City officials were also miffed that the public meeting conflicted with a City Council meeting.
Drennan told state representatives that traffic backs up into the city from U.S. 11 when there is an accident or construction on Interstate 12 and also when the bridge over Bayou Liberty goes out and drivers seek alternate routes.
“It’s like Veterans in Jefferson Parish,” Drennan said, referring to the scarcity of left-hand turns on Veterans Memorial Boulevard.
“You have to go 10 blocks to get to the place you just passed up,” added Gene Swann, Slidell’s director of public operations.
Drennan and several council members were concerned about how turning restrictions would affect trucks coming out of a nearby industrial site. Heavy trucks would have to come farther into town, Drennan said, causing wear and tear on local roads.
The state is proposing to widen the bridge from two lanes with no shoulders to four lanes with shoulders.
Councilman Bill Borchert pointed out that the city has grant money to build a pedestrian walkway at Fremaux and Front streets, just a few blocks away from where the widening would begin, and wondered if that would be a problem with additional traffic making U-turns.
“Has anybody looked at these issues?” a frustrated Drennan asked. “If this is planning, all that needs to be brought into it.”
Nick Olivier, a project management administrator, said the DOTD can’t design U.S. 11 to account for every other road in Slidell. “We have to justify what we put on the road,” he said. “We want to give the city of Slidell a good road.”
Traffic engineer Ryan Hoyt said the agency has done traffic counts and taken into account the classes of vehicles and seasonal changes in traffic flow.
Restricting lanes makes traffic move more efficiently and is safer, he said.
The state’s plan calls for removing three traffic signals. DOTD officials said that making a U-turn and then a right turn is less time-consuming for a driver than sitting through several cycles at a traffic light.
DOTD’s preferred option would remove the traffic signals at Hall Avenue and U.S. 11, banning left turns and eliminating through traffic between East Hall and West Hall, according to a memo from the city’s planning department.
At the intersection of Gause Boulevard and U.S. 11, left-hand turns would be allowed from U.S. 11 onto Gause but not from Gause onto U.S. 11.
Traffic signals would be removed at Lafayette Street and North Boulevard. No left-hand turns would be allowed from Lafayette or from westbound North Boulevard onto U.S. 11.
But they would be allowed from southbound U.S. 11 onto North. No left-hand turns would be allowed from Ben Thomas Road or Powell Drive.
One local official did make some positive remarks about the proposal. St. Tammany Parish Councilman Steve Stefancik said he thinks it’s a good project that’s been needed for a long time. Lots of cities are restricting left turns as an improvement to traffic flow and safety, he said. He predicted that people will accept the change more readily than critics might expect.
The DOTD has no schedule for the project yet. Public comments will be taken until Dec. 26. They can be sent to: Arcadis U.S. Inc., US 11 NS RR Project Manager, 10352 Plaza Americana Drive, Baton Rouge, LA 70816.
Comments also can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Hoffeld, project manager with Arcadis, the consulting firm for the project, assured city officials that all input will be considered and that each suggestion would be weighed on its merits.
Drennan said his staff will be meeting soon to draft a letter outlining Slidell’s concerns.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.