|The FuturEBR master plan—a byproduct of decades of planning—aims to correct traffic woes, but money and priorities remain elusive.|
The antidote to Baton Rouge's traffic woes has been on the books for decades. It's called the Major Street Plan and is the backbone of the Green Light Plan, which has six projects under way and 26 already completed.
The Major Street Plan is also an underlying component of the city-parish's newest master plan, FuturEBR. It takes the Major Street Plan to the next level, providing a remedy to gridlock with more than 40 new roads crisscrossing East Baton Rouge Parish. On paper the arterial possibilities are expanded: A north corridor runs from Hooper Road to Greenwell Springs Road at the North Sherwood Forest Drive light; Kenilworth Parkway is pushed over Perkins Road and its southern end kicks out to River Road behind the Riverbend subdivision.
But as intractable as an Interstate 12 traffic jam, the plans remain stuck on paper. Just getting those aforementioned roads built, much less the 40-something other ones inked out, is an unfunded, faraway reality.
“We're looking at billions of dollars' worth of work,” says Bryan Harmon, deputy director of the Department of Public Works. “There's limitless projects out there.”
It would take a new tax or bond to build new roads suggested in the FuturEBR plan. And city-parish voters haven't passed a bond for capital improvements since 1965. In a way, it took Katrina-induced traffic for voters in 2005 to approve a half-cent sales tax that bankrolls the Green Light Plan through 2030.
“That gave the city the ability to bond,” Harmon says. “It allowed us to move forward with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of work in a very short period of time.”
Each mile of construction, Harmon says, takes between $10 million and $15 million to complete. Inflation will drive that dollar figure up when—and if—roads in the FuturEBR plan are built.
While the source of future funding remains unknown at this point, FuturEBR's road-building agenda is not prioritized. The entire plan outlines land use and development in the city-parish. Steps are already in place for planning Smiley Heights, a mixed-use development slated for undeveloped land at Greenwell Springs Road and Ardenwood Drive that by 2030 is predicted to bring 3,500 new households and 20,000 jobs. But progress on how it will synchronize with new corridors and other development has stayed mostly behind closed doors.
In June, Mayor Kip Holden appointed a FuturEBR Implementation Team. But members have convened privately in “staff-level” meetings and have met publicly only once. At this point, FIT does not have a future meeting date set, according to Walter Monsour, who is chairing the group.
“The staffs are still working to quantify and prioritize their recommendations to the FIT committee,” he says.
When plans collide
While there is no reason to doubt FIT's capability at prioritizing projects laid out by FuturEBR, the plan itself has caused some headaches. Just ask Ty Gose. The local real estate agent has had a 2.9-acre tract of land at the corner of Kenilworth and Perkins on the market for nearly five years. Gose says a group of buyers wanted to build an office park there and were ready to ink a deal, but they had a head-on collision with DPW.
Harmon says Public Works denied the potential buyers a permit to connect a driveway with the light at the intersection because of traffic congestion that is anticipated with a ?Kenilworth extension. Gose concedes the potential group of buyers was denied a tie-in with the light, but says the deal-breaker was the 25% of property that lies in the right of way and can be appropriated by the city-parish at any time in the future.
Getting the green light
Through the second quarter of 2012, the Green Light Plan has committed $496 million to projects since work first began in the fall of 2007. Click here for a selection of completed projects.
“The bottom line is footage,” Gose says.
For its part, the city-parish claims the Kenilworth right of way has been on the books since 1997.
“It's been on the Major Street Plan before the new plan was even thought of,” says Ryan Holcomb, a project coordinator for the Planning Commission.
For now, Harmon says property owners can build whatever they want in FuturEBR's right of ways. But there's no promise the city won't come back 10, 20 or 30 years from now and buy property for a corridor.
To see future roadways detailed in FuturEBR, go online to brgov.com, click on “Departments” in the left column, scroll down and click “Planning Commission,” then click “Maps and Listings.” Scroll down and click on “Major Street Plan.” Future roadways are outlined in yellow.
“We as a city cannot take somebody's property and say you cannot develop here,” Harmon says.
Without priorities and funding, FuturEBR's Kenilworth extension remains without a timetable. Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center recently funded a study that is still in draft form but shows an extension of Kenilworth Parkway to the north is necessary for the safety of transporting patients, since emergency services originating south of Perkins Road can sometimes get tied up by train traffic on the parallel-running railroad tracks.
Catherine Harrell, vice president of communications at the hospital, says the expansion of Our Lady of the Lake, which includes a 330,000-square-foot Heart and Vascular Tower, is dependent on the new corridor. Completion of the 10-floor structure is expected by 2014.
City-parish planners say a Kenilworth extension would include an underpass at the railroad tracks that resembles Acadian Thruway's underpass. While some development might get sacrificed to implement FuturEBR, officials say the Kenilworth extension and other projects in the master plan are not designed to hamper everyday business.
“We want things to happen; we want things to build; we want things to grow,” Harmon says. “But you have to plan so we don't get gridlocked.”
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