One day before Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration presented a plan to reduce vehicular traffic along Baronne Street to one lane and to add a dedicated bike lane, the city’s chief traffic engineer said he didn’t think it was a good idea.
Allen Yrle, in at least two emails to his boss, Public Works Department Director Mark Jernigan, said he disagreed with a city-commissioned study that concluded the loss of a lane wouldn’t have a significant negative impact on traffic. Yrle recommended that the city keep two lanes of vehicular traffic on Baronne, a one-way street, and install a shared bike lane instead.
“The analyses done show unacceptable levels of service at the Poydras/Baronne and Howard/Baronne intersections with the proposed lane reduction,” Yrle wrote in an email dated Sept. 16.
Yrle did not speak at a community meeting at the Contemporary Arts Center where the plan was presented the next day, nor were his concerns directly expressed in a presentation delivered by the administration.
Jernigan instead presented the same proposal the city had spent the preceding few months drafting. That proposal calls for adding a dedicated, buffered bike lane in place of the right lane of traffic on Baronne from Canal Street to Calliope Street.
Most of the 11-block stretch would be reduced from two lanes to one lane of traffic to accommodate the bike lane. Only the two blocks from Julia Street to Calliope would include two car lanes and a bike lane under the city’s proposal. A parking lane would be eliminated along that stretch.
The plan has the support of cyclists and several nearby hotels, but it has been panned by some business owners along Baronne, who say it would cause traffic delays.
Baronne cuts through the Central Business District in an uptown direction. It is a main thoroughfare for motorists heading out of the CBD and a direct route to the Pontchartrain Expressway on-ramps heading east and west.
“If indeed the city decides to reduce the traffic from two to one lanes, that is obviously going to create a bottleneck,” said Rene Brunet, who owns Cafe 821 on Baronne near Julia Street, about a block and a half from the expressway. “I witness the congestion every day. If they’re reducing a traffic lane, that’s going to cause chaos.”
But the city has said the addition of a bike lane is consistent with its master plan and would provide a safe route to and from work for CBD commuters without access to a car. Dedicated bike lanes are safer for drivers and cyclists than having cyclists ride in traffic lanes, the city has said.
The city contracted with the New Orleans consulting firm GCR to study the idea. The firm urged the city to proceed with the plan, saying it would increase motorists’ travel time from Canal to Calliope by only one to two minutes and would make walking and biking easier, while also improving safety.
Yrle, however, said the study did not consider the impact on traffic at the busy Poydras Street and Howard Avenue intersections during peak times. Those intersections would experience “significant delay,” he wrote.
“The in-house analysis done in May shows that these delays increase between 100 percent and 300 percent,” Yrle wrote in a Sept. 12 email to Jernigan, responding to his boss’ request for feedback on the study.
Yrle also said it would not be feasible to push the increased traffic along faster on Baronne by giving that street longer green lights, because that would only slow things down elsewhere.
“In our CBD grid system, we do not have the luxury of increasing green (light) time at the traffic signals until the Baronne demand is met,” Yrle said. “Poydras and Howard are operating at or near capacity already and cannot afford to lose any green time.”
The Mayor’s Office did not respond directly to a request seeking comment on Yrle’s assessment.
“The city received comment on this proposal during two public meetings and conducted additional outreach to stakeholders along the corridor. Currently the city is finalizing its review of these comments and will release responses along with a decision soon,” administration spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said in a statement.
If the plan moves forward, it would go next to a City Council committee for review. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, whose district includes the CBD, said she was not aware of Yrle’s comments until told about them by a reporter.
Cantrell said she plans to rely on the studies done by the administration and Public Works Department in making a decision about whether to support the plan.
“I’m not an expert on it,” she said. “I’m going to have to trust the administration and DPW to make the decision.”
Cantrell said she believes a bike lane is necessary downtown for the safety of cyclists. But she said she’s “not married to any actual street or location.”
Moving the bike lane to another street would be welcomed by businesses along Baronne, Brunet said. Critics of the Baronne proposal have suggested that other, less-traveled streets, like O’Keefe or South Rampart, be used for that purpose instead.
“To me it’s a pretty simple issue. We want to green the city, but the choice of the street they want to do it on isn’t a wise one. There’s a solution a block away,” Brunet said. “I’m just kind of puzzled really as to why the city definitely wants it there.”