The Road to Nowhere: The cost of Baton Rouge traffic studies

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Baton Rouge's traffic woes are chronic. For many, traffic headaches are seemingly a part of life.

"I have been doing this commute from along there for 18 years," said Carol Mendoza.

After several hours at work, Mendoza's day is far from over. Leaving her job on LSU's campus, her daily trek home to St. Amant along I-10 usually takes about an hour, but sometimes it can be even worse.

"My coworker and I have thought many times, we ought to just get an apartment for the week and then go home for the weekends," Mendoza said.

Mendoza's story is all too familiar to many in the capital region. Studies have been conducted for years to improve things in and around Baton Rouge, but so far, there is little to show for it. "We're here because decisions weren't made, investments weren't made at the time," said Shawn Wilson, the secretary of DOTD.

Wilson said if nothing is done to improve things in Baton Rouge, congestion will only get worse. "Instead of just rush hour traffic, your peak might start at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and run until 6:30 or 7 right now. That will continue to widen because of the congestion," Wilson said.

Data from DOTD shows that over the last 20 years, the department has in fact only considered a handful of projects aimed at cutting back on the congestion. Most of those got stuck in the study phase before fizzling out. One study looked to enhance I-10 from the bridge to the split. That plan was thrown in the trash in 2000, but still racked up a cost of nearly $2.7 million.

Another study would have created what was referred to as the Southern Bypass. The new road would have veered off of I-10 near LA 415 in West Baton Rouge. The road would then have crossed the Mississippi River on a new bridge near Brusly and connected with I-10 south of Denham Springs. That plan also died, but still came with a price tag of more than $600,000.

Other organizations have done studies over the years, including one for the so-called "loop" around the capital city. That proposal is still in the works. Records from parish government show that over the past decade, studies for the loop alone cost approximately $6.7 million. That means all-told, unfinished studies to fix Baton Rouge's traffic woes cost in the ballpark of $10 million, if not more over the past two decades – all that without much to show for it.

"Hindsight is 20/20 and we can see that we should have been more aggressive in some of those areas," said Tom Ed McHugh, who served as Mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish in the 1990s.

McHugh was one of the major supporters of the DOTD proposals during his tenure as Mayor-president. "The whole metropolitan area has grown tremendously, and with that growth, without those improvements that didn't happen, it just made the problems all that worse," McHugh said.

Many of DOTD's proposals died in part because of public opposition. News stories from 1998, for example, show public meetings packed with people worried about what constructing the southern bypass could mean for the environment or the economy.

"There's people from the business perspective that might have had an objection because it might have rerouted a lot of traffic they were depending on for their business," McHugh said.

And so, 20 years later, the traffic is worse than ever before, spurred in part by the migration that happened after Hurricane Katrina.

"I don't think they anticipated that it would happen as quickly. No one anticipated Katrina. Overnight, we were at our 30 year projections in Baton Rouge," Wilson said.

So will we ever get out of this mess?

Since 2011, the state has been working on an I-10 widening study. So far, that study has cost $2 million, and the next stage of research could cost an additional $2.9 million.

Wilson said that unlike in the past, this time around, the proposal has faced far less resistance. A shortage of money is now one of the biggest inhibiting factors. "Our needs far outweigh our resources," Wilson said.

Because of Louisiana's financial woes, the state's ability to take out loans is limited. With such a small pool of cash to work with, Wilson said DOTD cannot reasonably put it all toward I-10, especially when there are other roads across the state in need of repair.

Wilson said it may be time to raise the state's gas tax, which has remained the same for more than two decades.

McHugh said there is another problem: local roads and surface streets. "We did not over the years develop our local infrastructure and we certainly are suffering the consequences of that," McHugh said.

He said getting local people to use surface streets rather than the interstate could cut back on the congestion, but again, improving parish roads is a matter of financing that the state simply does not have.

Earlier this year, voters rejected a new tax funding an expanded Green Light initiative. "You can't have a world class transportation system if you don't have a world class way of financing it," Wilson said.

If all goes well with the plan for I-10, any improvements could still be several years off. Just last month, DOTD announced they are testing the waters on a new way of financing road projects they said could speed things up.

Under the plan, private entities would pay for part of the project up front and the state would pay it off over time with interest. DOTD will be collecting feedback on this potential means of finance through the end of March.

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