Loop not the answer
The pathetic state of what passes for a surface street grid in Baton Rouge was on full display Aug. 22 when a tanker truck leaking a toxic chemical not only closed Interstate 10 but effectively shut down much of the city. Absent I-10 to ferry commuters to their jobs, drivers had no choice but to use surface streets that were never designed to handle such volume. Which—as one might expect during a 20-minute commute that, on this day, lasted nearly four blood-pressure-soaring hours—led to the invention of many new and colorful four-letter expletives to express the colossal exasperation that can only be experienced during a 60-minute, horn-honking, middle-finger-waving, inch-by-inch, quarter-mile crawl down Bluebonnet Boulevard.
In other words, Southern hospitality was not on display this day.
Once those who survived the commute from a-place-worse-than-hell managed to pry their embedded, rigor mortis-like fingers from their steering wheels, many put their digits to work on social media sites begging anyone reading to help Mayor Kip Holden get his much-hyped, NIMBY-opposed, toll road of a loop constructed as soon as humanly possible—if not faster.
There's only one significant problem: The loop, as proposed, would have done absolutely zilch to 1] keep the car and two 18-wheelers involved in the interstate-closing accident off I-10 and 2] provide an alternative route for commuters from neighboring parishes trying to get to their jobs in Baton Rouge. Other than that, what's not to love?
According to a study done a few years ago, roughly 90% of the traffic on the stretches of I-10 and I-12 that pass through Baton Rouge and its neighboring parishes is local. In other words, almost every car, SUV and truck using the interstate is a local vehicle trying to get from one place to another. This, in essence, has made the interstate our Main Street—a point made anecdotally by the lack of interstate congestion during non-commuter hours.
Even in the loop's most ambitious form—during those halcyon days before almost every neighboring parish withdrew its support for the project—the potential routes all would have run along the far borders of Ascension and Livingston parishes. This might have been a requirement to satisfy NIMBYs, who support the concept of a loop provided it runs any place other than near their home, but it pretty much makes the loop useless as a tool to reduce rush hour traffic. What those who favor a loop are left with is a goal to build something called a “northern bypass” that will not do a thing to remove traffic from I-10. Even Holden, the loop's most ardent and diehard supporter, acknowledges the present-day loop proposal would have done little to reduce the nightmare that was Aug. 22.
The underlying cause of the traffic disaster was not the absence of a loop but the absence of any semblance of a surface street grid. The two major surface roads that bring commuters into Baton Rouge—Florida Boulevard and Airline Highway—are at traffic capacity even when I-10 and I-12 are fully functioning. Commuter traffic is just as horrific on Greenwell Springs Road, Perkins Road, College Drive, Essen Lane, Bluebonnet and Siegen Lane.
There are many reasons why our street grid is fractured and, in many respects, useless. Cash-strapped local governments have knowingly allowed the interstate to become Main Street and make the solution a federal problem. We continue to live under the wrong headed notion that making the few corridors that we do have wider will solve the problem, when, in reality, it eventually makes it worse. For decades we adopted the mindset that the only transportation option that matters is the automobile. Our love affair with sprawl and a lack of street connectivity results in growth not generating the property tax revenue necessary to keep up with infrastructure demands. And, finally, those responsible for managing growth in the region failed us, all-too-easily granting waivers instead of forcing developers to follow the rules.
It's a gumbo that's responsible for the quagmire that is Baton Rouge traffic.
People have been discussing the need for a Baton Rouge loop for more than 30 years, and there was a time when a loop might have served a useful purpose in reducing traffic on I-10 and I-12. Those days are forever gone.
If the goal is to reduce pressure on our overburdened road system, then the solution is to add new surface roads, connect the street grid and develop alternative transportation options. Until then, we'll remain one accident away from another day like Aug. 22.
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