Believe it or not

Believe it or not

East Baton Rouge Parish voters will be asked to believe forecasts of economic gridlock in order to fund traffic and public transit solutions.

The ambitious FuturEBR master plan includes strategies for land use, urban design, housing, economic development and open spaces that shape East Baton Rouge Parish's anticipated growth over the next 30 years.

But if the parish doesn't come up with a new transportation strategy that addresses its abhorrent traffic congestion and its broken public transit system, development could come to a standstill that mirrors interstates 10 and 12 at rush hour.

"You simply will stop growing," says John Fregonese, FuturEBR's lead planner. "Transit revitalization is critical to this plan because, frankly, all the models we've looked at show congestion becoming intolerable if you don't start managing it. It could cripple your economy."

Fregonese is not alone in holding this view. A 17-member blue-ribbon commission assembled in March by Mayor Kip Holden to study transportation issues recently came to the same conclusion.

Despite what the experts say, a larger question looms: Do voters, who will be asked to fund traffic and public transit solutions through increased taxes, believe the prognostications of gloom?

"In some circles, the report and recommendation by the commission have been received as a Band-Aid for [the Capital Area Transit System], and that's terribly unfortunate," says the Rev. Raymond Jetson, who chaired the commission.

"We have been so conditioned by the congestion that we actually think this is the way it will always be, and we don't recognize there are more convenient ways to get around that will enhance our ability to have a better quality of life," he says.

The commission recommends the creation of a taxing district to generate an estimated $18 million per year for the cash-strapped CATS and asking voters in the taxing district this fall to approve a sales tax that's 0.3% or less and a property tax increase that's 4 mills or less.

Other recommendations to improve CATS include sweeping changes to the way CATS is governed and to the way board members are selected; creating a transit board that would have the final say on fares and routes; decreasing average wait times of 75 minutes to 20 minutes; increasing routes from 19 to 37; building three transit hubs; improving bus stops and shelters; adding signage and route information; creating three express lines for downtown to LSU, Florida Boulevard and Plank Road, with service to Metro Airport; and exploring fee-for-service revenue options with the school system and nonprofit organizations.

The recommendations must receive approval from the Metro Council and, because the city-parish has reached the constitutional ceiling for sales taxes, the Legislature. Fifty-three percent of parish voters rejected a similar tax last fall.

"There wasn't much of a campaign to get that first tax passed," Fregonese says. "If this is going to pass, it's going to have to be explained and marketed very well."

Making the sale

The commission disbanded after its final meeting last month, Jetson says, but a number of members have started to plan public meetings to initiate a community-wide conversation on transportation solutions.

"It's not a part of an initiative to pass a tax," he says. "It's about having a robust conversation about the future of our community, and anybody who genuinely is concerned about it should be engaged, even if you don't agree with the recommendation."

Meg Mahoney, who represented the Baton Rouge Area Chamber on the commission, says the hope is that nonprofits, including Together Baton Rouge, Center for Planning Excellence, Forum 35 and the local AARP chapter, will undertake their own education and marketing efforts. BRAC has not taken an official position, she says, adding that she expects the issue to be addressed soon.

Just 3.3% of the East Baton Rouge population currently uses public transit—about half of the per-capita ridership in peer cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Memphis, Tenn.—and the majority of the people using CATS have no other transportation options.

"The real challenge is to make folks see that whether you utilize the current transit system or not, it matters to you," Mahoney says. "Transit is not just for people on the bus, it's for people on the interstate, too."


Capital Area Transit System recommendations made by Mayor Kip Holden's commission:
• Asking voters in a special taxing district to approve a sales tax that's 0.3% or less and a property tax increase that's 4 mills or less
• Sweeping changes to the way CATS is governed and to the way board members are selected
• Creating a transit board that would have the final say on fares and routes
• Decreasing average wait times of 75 minutes to 20 minutes
• Increasing routes from 19 to 37
• Building three transit hubs
• Improving bus stops and shelters
• Adding signage and route information
• Creating three express lines for downtown to LSU, Florida Boulevard and Plank Road, with service to Metro Airport
• Exploring fee-for-service revenue options with the school system and nonprofit organizations

CATS supporters point to a link between economic development and an attractive public transit system; the commission says every dollar spent on transit generates another $35. But parish voters historically have opposed taxes from which they don't directly benefit and also taxes for economic development issues. For example, the Alive riverfront tourist attraction has been considered the death knell for Holden's previous two capital-improvement packages.

Fregonese says it might be a good idea to stroke Baton Rouge's love of roadways while trying to sell the funding of an improved transit system.

"You might capture more voters if you frame it as a congestion management package and throw in some roadway projects," he says. "We're not saying we're not going to do it without building roads, but we're not going to do it only by building roads. The reality is, you can't widen enough roads to solve this problem."

A successful transit system will not only help address congestion issues, Fregonese says, but it will also help more of the parish's poorer residents land and keep jobs, thereby leading to reduced poverty and crime. Getting all of those points across will be important in selling a tax, he says, as will showing voters what they will get for their money.

The tax would more than double CATS' annual budget, from about $11 million to $29 million. The commission says Baton Rouge is the only city of its size in the nation without a dedicated funding source for public transit.

"It's not just a start," Fregonese says. "It's a damn good system. It's really inexpensive for a huge increase in services. To get that implemented would be a big jump forward for Baton Rouge. But the thing is, people have to believe it."

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