FutureStructure

Actionable Solutions Missing From Baton Rouge, La., Meeting on Future Traffic Initiatives

Several speakers talked about nascent efforts to control traffic in Baton Rouge through the city's "smart city" committee, which includes academics, technology professionals and politicians who are trying to collect data to better inform policy decisions.

by / April 27, 2017
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(TNS) -- Tuesday's summit on Baton Rouge traffic was split roughly in half: For the first two hours, local, state and federal officials bemoaned the poor decisions and lack of foresight by their predecessors. Afterward, they shared big dreams but offered little in the way of concrete policies or specific designs.

Though the event was billed as an opportunity to discuss "future Mississippi River bridge access" and alternatives to the interstate, neither the state Department of Transportation and Development nor the city-parish shared actionable solutions.

Many presenters spoke of a need to build "complete streets" that promote bicycle, foot and public transportation; however, when audience members asked about particular bike paths or bus routes, organizers told them to hold on to their questions so they could be addressed at a later meeting.

In her closing remarks, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome thanked the government officials and contractors for their input, saying leaders need to form a transportation plan the community can rally behind. She made passing reference to Phase Two of the Green Light Plan, which voters last year chose not to support with a property tax. Broome implied a future proposal will need to be palatable to taxpayers, since any initiative "will involve some dollars."

Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis suggested the Green Light Plan failed because people only thought about the effects in their own neighborhoods rather than looking at the big picture.

"We're all fighting over the same dollars," she said.

Several speakers talked about nascent efforts to control traffic in Baton Rouge through the city's "smart city" committee, which includes academics, technology professionals and politicians who are trying to collect data to better inform policy decisions. The work won't directly build a new road, but participants hope that by collecting information from traffic apps, future road sensors and cameras they can take steps to synchronize traffic signals, coordinate public transportation or possibly make a compelling case for new infrastructure.

More broadly, planners need to account for changes in the way people get around, said Jim Barbaresso, vice president of engineering and planning consulting firm HNTB. In the years to come, vehicles will become more automated, connected, electric and shared.

"That's your transportation future," he said. "Data is really the currency of this century. … We've got to start planning now for these smart cities."

Last year, the city-parish entered into a contract with Waze, a Google-owned traffic app, and Congressman Garrett Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said he hopes the data culled from the partnership can inform where to build new roads by showing underdeveloped routes.

Smart City efforts won't build another bridge on their own, city-parish IT director Eric Romero said in an interview, but the group can provide a different, data-driven perspective to justify spending when money does become available for transportation.

The problem is that Louisiana has fallen behind due to "30 years of disinvestment," said state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson. Since the state passed its gas tax in 1989, some 44 states have increased their infrastructure spending, he said.

As a result, the Bayou State falls toward the back of the pack in metrics from asphalt quality to road fatalities.

"I'm not proud," Wilson said. "We get what we pay for here in Louisiana."

He recommended that as the state looks to increase its transportation spending, leaders should specify that any new money cannot be spent on salaries — whether in his department or in other agencies, like the State Police, which have had transportation money sent to their coffers.

Others also emphasized the need to invest in transportation, which Broome said is in need of "vast and consistent improvement."

Congressman Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, pleaded with Democrats and Republicans to put their partisan differences behind them for the good of commuters.

"Our needs are so great and our capacity is so little," he said. "Our infrastructure is deplorable."

©2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.