In all the plans, public workshops and “visioning” exercises that have dealt with Government Street, none have concluded the popular Midcity corridor should look the way it does.
Whether it’s neighborhood residents and business owners placing colored stickers on maps or urban planners and landscape architects with their sophisticated computer programs, the results are always about the same: Trees; better sidewalks; bike lanes, on-street parking; fewer telephone poles and ugly signs; prominent crosswalks; and slower traffic.
In many cases, the high-speed four-lane road is envisioned as having only three: a turn lane in the center and one lane on each side of it. The extra space carved out would be devoted to the amenities that aren’t there now.
Such a street — referred to as a “complete street” in the city’s upcoming Future BR plan — would be a magnet for residents and pedestrians, local shops and restaurants, they say. It’s not uncommon to hear “Magazine Street” mentioned in hopeful tones.
However, there is one particular kind of study that always argues that Government Street is just fine the way it is — the traffic study.
In a city suffering from traffic congestion caused by decades of poor planning and sprawling development, the prospect of reducing the traffic capacity of such a busy corridor has proven to be a nonstarter over the years.
With the city-parish’s overhaul of its land use and development plan calling for complete streets, walkability and future development that is appropriate in scale to the transportation corridor it lines, the question is poised to come up again: What is to be done about Government Street?
Whether a so-called “road diet” is among Future BR plan recommendations that will go to city officials later this year remains to be seen.
“I think that’s at the top of our list — Government Street, among others,” said John Fregonese, lead planner with Portland, Ore.-based Fregonese and Associates. “It’s got potential for a road diet and other changes.”
Fregonese said Future BR will emphasize, among other things, the complete street concept. Florida Boulevard, Plank Road, Scenic Highway, Highland Road and Nicholson Drive have been identified as corridors that could get redeveloped as complete streets.
Government could serve as the demonstration project.
“It’s not just looking at streets as a means of conveying traffic while ignoring everything else,”
Fregonese said. “It’s understanding that streets are important open spaces for people to gather.”
Moving traffic, he said, “is one of the functions, but it’s not the only function.”
Proponents of road diets of a thoroughfare like Government Street point out that they don’t require the city to buy or expropriate land from property owners along the street. The space that ultimately becomes parking, sidewalks and bike lanes comes from the loss of a single lane.
But commuters are a significant constituency, and elected officials and traffic engineers are loathe to pursue anything that would lessen a street’s ability to move cars quickly.
“Anytime I have been in a conversation regarding reducing lanes, the conversation just dies,” said Sam Sanders, executive director of the Mid-City Redevelopment Alliance. “I’d like to have it not just die. I’d like to see us try to work our way through it.”
“It’s very difficult for people trying to solve congestion problems to support anything that reduces capacity,” explained Mike Bruce, a principal of ABMB Engineers, the traffic consultant on the Future BR team. “By nature, traffic engineers see the removal of lanes as (antithetical to) their purpose in life, which is to alleviate traffic congestion. It just seems to go against everything that they’re trying to do,” he said.
ABMB conducted two traffic studies last decade looking specifically at road diets for Government: one for the downtown segment and the other for the stretch through Midcity.
“Both studies did say that we would have some loss of capacity,” Bruce said, estimating decreases of less than a quarter.
“In both cases, we couldn’t get unanimity of support,” he said.
The first study was requested by the Downtown Development District in 2005, but the conversation was cut short. The DDD took the issue off the table after Hurricane Katrina changed the city’s priorities, but not before its board voted to support removing a lane from Government west of Interstate 110.
Davis Rhorer, the DDD’s executive director, said there is nothing wrong with getting people where they’re going quickly, “but once you get downtown you have to slow down.”
“The planning documents and experts who have weighed in on this have been consistent about it,” Rhorer said, noting that traffic-calming measures almost a decade ago in front of the convention center on River Road had skeptics too.
Asked if he has an opinion about Government east of Interstate 110, Rhorer replied, “I would love to see it three-laned all the way down to Foster (Drive).”
The study for that segment of Government occurred in 2007 at the request of the Mid-City Redevelopment Alliance after years of residents and business owners asking about a road diet.
Looking seriously at a road diet was one of the conclusions of the Government Street Master Action Plan completed several years before. Participants overwhelmingly called the street unsafe for pedestrians and inappropriate for the kinds of local businesses they wanted to see thrive there.
“I don’t know anyone who wants Government Street to look the way it looks (now) in 20 years,” Sanders said.
Sanders, who supports a road diet but considers himself “a realist” about the odds of that happening, said he considered the issue more or less dead after the study. However, the idea still comes up, he said.
“I am not in any way trying to set the agenda for how we handle traffic on Government Street,” Sanders said. “It’s a concept that has repeatedly come up in community meetings for how you improve Government Street.”
Sherri Thompson, who lives a block off Government on Arlington Avenue, called the idea of a road diet — or any traffic-calming measures — “wonderful.”
“I have friends that live, literally, across the street on Hearthstone,” she said. “Just to get across the street and up a block … it feels uncomfortable to do that. I even wind up driving to CVS, which is a block away.”
Supporters say that dismissing a road diet simply because it reduces traffic capacity doesn’t take into account all the things the street would gain.
“Nobody wants to create a situation where traffic doesn’t flow,” Rhorer said. “We want that, but also there are other things that you want to try to achieve.”
Bruce said there is excess capacity on parallel corridors to Government, such as Florida Boulevard and, especially, North Boulevard. Even since construction of a $12 million overpass several years ago, traffic studies show North Boulevard is greatly underutilized.
“We had hoped some of the traffic would shift to North Boulevard so Government Street would shift from a thoroughfare to more of a destination … more like a Magazine Street or in Houston, where it’s more shopping-oriented,” said Dennis Hargroder, president of the Mid City Merchants Association and a supporter of a road diet.
Bruce said the key to changing traffic patterns is often more than just providing an alternative. Drivers need a reason to change how they get where they are going.
“People, especially commuters, will always find the quickest routes home,” he said, “and right now they don’t have to do that. When North Boulevard becomes more convenient, if it ever does, people will naturally find their way to … other parallel routes through Midcity.”
Hargroder said it seems evident that the two kinds of drivers who use Government — those who are just driving a few blocks to the grocery store or local art shop and those who are using it as a quick way to get from downtown out of Midcity — are at odds with one another.
“A three-lane situation would actually alleviate more congestion than they realize,” he said. He noted that both center lanes are effectively turn lanes anyway because so many people are stopped in them trying to make a left turn.
Bruce said that when it comes to traffic accidents, there are segments of Government Street that fall into the “abnormal” range.
“It is a high-accident corridor in portions,” he said, though he cautioned that slowing traffic won’t necessarily make the street safer if congestion worsens.
While ABMB has been in the position to deliver the data that has killed initiatives to three-lane Government Street in the past, Bruce said his firm has always tried to have a broader view than just the traffic side of the equation.
After the last look at a road diet died on the vine, ABMB began looking at how a few rotaries at major intersections could slow cars down rather than stopping them, an idea Hargroder, Sanders and Rhorer said sounds promising.
“I see Government Street as one that could be looked at early on if we can get everyone to agree on the pros and cons,” Bruce said.
Bruce pointed out that improving the transit system and increasing its ridership — also a goal of Future BR — plays a role in reducing traffic congestion. That helps make things like road diets more feasible.
Whatever happens, though, the final authority now lies in the hands of the state, because Government is a state road — La. 73.
Asked about a road diet for Government Street, the state Department of Transportation and Development would only issue a statement:
“At this time, DOTD feels that reducing capacity on Government Street is not a viable option.
However, we are aware that a consultant is presenting a plan to the city that may include an option to reduce capacity. Any plans for modifications to Government Street would need to be approved by the city and submitted to DOTD for review and approval.”
A call to the city-parish traffic engineer’s office was not returned. Mayor-President Kip Holden referred calls to Rhorer and the Department of Public Works, which could not be reached in time for comment.
Rhorer said he thinks the odds of bringing major changes to Government Street would improve if the state gave the road to the city-parish, something he said is not uncommon.
Fregonese said dealing with issues like Government Street is something Baton Rouge can’t avoid.
“There’s so much potential that’s being hindered by road design,” he said. “The fact that it’s challenging is important.”
Change would be well received by residents like Thompson.
“One of the most frustrating things as a resident,” she said, “is that you get your hopes up that something’s going to happen … and nothing ever happens. Why am I here again, telling people the same thing I told the last people who were here?”