OPINION | McHugh David: Extend regional cooperation to traffic woes
The announcement that the Louisiana Legislature will be making a serious effort toward funding and, in due time, finishing the Comite River Diversion Canal brings a bit of hope to the Capitol Region drainage situation.
Last year, state Rep. Valarie Hodges and Congressman Garret Graves ramped up their campaigns to see the canal completed. In the wake of the Great Flood of 2016, the movement seemed like a winning path to seeing a long overdue improvement come to fruition -- especially considering residents in the Amite River Basin had paid a tax into the system for nearly three decades.
The move really captivated attention when the project was referred to as a “start” to drainage improvements in the region, stressing the idea that drainage was not just a local issue, but a regional one as well. Those phrases have brought together enough political and representative force to get the ball rolling -- so first comes the canal, and then further drainage projects will hopefully snowball into effect as the Comite is finished.
Meanwhile, with the exception of one snafu between Parish President Layton Ricks and Ascension Parish with their proposed levees, the Capitol Region is pushing forward together for future drainage -- as all water flows south. The conflagration between Ricks and Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa revolves around the aforementioned levees, but that is a project the involves Ascension caring for its own.
Livingston Parish has its own projects in the works -- albeit, ones that do not affect other parishes’ drainage but, digression -- including $4 million toward debris cleaning of major systems, and a partnership between Gravity Drainage District 1 and the City of Denham Springs.
It’s a start.
In an interesting twist, unfortunately, the Capitol Region’s traffic woes don’t quite work like drainage. Water is free-flowing; it goes where you tell it to go without thought or care, guided simply by the land around it into waiting bodies of water. People do not work the same -- they miss lights because of their phone, pass the turn due to their breakfast, and are subject to man-made transportation outlets only, and must eventually land in a specific parking spot, as opposed to crashing into a giant body of water.
In short, traffic is much less predictable than water. And yet studies exist that plot out the entirety of Baton Rouge’s traffic -- where, when, and how it piles into the Red Stick every weekday morning, and where it escapes to in the evening.
But, unlike drainage, traffic alleviation is less of a conglomeration of efforts to make for a united voice, and more of a competition for a very limited source of dollars.
First, a caveat – it’s common knowledge that a big issue with Baton Rouge’s traffic is that the infrastructure net south of the interstate is woefully inadequate to handle the load. Interstate exits are designed to handle maybe half of what they are forced to withstand, every day. North of the interstate -- the older section of town -- was designed when money was available, with plenty of north-south and east-west travel available. Indeed, outside of the Interstate 12 Amite River crossing, both U.S. 190 and La. 63 are north of the interstate.
It still has its issues.
The main factor here is that ingress and egress into Baton Rouge from the north side (Zachary, Central) are mostly four-lane and flow well until they hit everyone else at U.S. 190, I-12, and where I-110 and I-10 collide. From anywhere else? It’s a standstill for most of the duration.
And yet, we in the outlying areas -- Livingston, Ascension, and West Baton Rouge -- are clamoring for more ways to enter a place that has a woeful infrastructure network. Those aforementioned parishes also are competing for dollars to build those new entryways.
Make no mistake, Livingston has its own local woes as roads look fantastic within about one mile north and south of I-12, then become woefully inadequate to handle the traffic count. Thousands of people barrage Denham Springs and the Fast Food Four Corners south of Watson trying to get into Baton Rouge, and vice versa in the evenings. The return crowd faces the same coming home -- interstate exits designed for traffic counts that might be 10 percent of what they are now.
What does this all lead to? The necessity for a Capitol Region infrastructure plan, much like drainage, that includes improved interstate exists. Widening the existing lanes won’t make much difference if traffic piles back up onto the interstate because the exit ramp isn't long enough, or people have to slow to a stop to merge with traffic on the “Airline Clover” (as opposed, to say, an over-the-top loop which deposits people into oncoming traffic.)
As mentioned, north Baton Rouge had plenty of roads for people to travel in the olden days. Why? Money was available. The Legislature must focus on improving the DOTD financial situation with a deep-dive on the budget, while local delegations and representatives focus on a regional traffic plan that assists everyone.
Else we’ll have 50 new ways to get in the Capitol -- and 50 new places to sit in traffic.