Baton Rouge bus rapid transit line could be rolling in five years

A new 10-mile bus rapid transit line connecting LSU with north Baton Rouge could be up and running by 2023 under a best-case scenario, according to East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority President and CEO Chris Tyson, whose agency is working with the Capital Area Transit System on the proposed project.

But that ambitious, five-year timeline assumes several pieces fall into place, including federal approval for the project, federal funding—which could cover as much as 60% of the estimated $50 million price tag—and the availability of local matching funds to cover the other 40% or so.

“We think it has tremendous potential for revitalizing the urban core,” Tyson says.

The proposed project was unveiled conceptually at Tuesday’s CATS board meeting, though various stakeholder groups have been meeting intensely for the last several weeks, Tyson says.

The project is Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s answer to what had been the pet project of her predecessor: a 3.4-mile modern streetcar line along Nicholson Drive connecting LSU to downtown.

Broome essentially nixed the project, even after it had received federal environmental approval and preliminary planning funds from the feds, because of concerns over its high cost and limited scope in a city rife with transit infrastructure shortcomings.

The new plan, by comparison, would cover nearly three times as much area—running from Nicholson Drive to Government Street, then 22nd Street and, eventually up to Plank Road—at about one-third the estimated cost. What’s more, CATS already has funds to purchase the electric buses that would be used for the route and some, in fact, have already been ordered and will soon be put into service.

The RDA is heavily involved in the project because transit is a core element of urban revitalization, and the agency has been working on a master plan for the redevelopment of Plank Road, a key artery in north Baton Rouge that is one of the busiest CATS routes in the system.

How could a new and improved BRT line on Plank Road revitalize the blighted corridor? Tyson says because the federal grant money that comes with the program would be used for more than just new buses and would improve the entire streetscape, thereby spawning new public and private investment.

“What the BRT grant will allow us to do is improve and enhance infrastructure—sidewalks, curbs, street furniture, signage and wayfinding,” Tyson says. “All of those things play a role in the aesthetic character of place, the functional character of place.”

It’s not at all clear the feds, through the Federal Transit Authority, will approve the city-parish’s plan to switch gears from a streetcar to BRT project. But Bryan Jones with HNTB, which was selected by the Metro Council in 2016 to lead the project development team for the streetcar, is optimistic based on recent communications with the agency.

“We were hopeful the FTA was going to be welcoming of the proposition to switch modes and, indeed, FTA said there is precedent for switching modes at this point in the project development,” Jones says. “We’re going from a more extensive mode to a lesser one so we’re moving in the right direction. It would be more difficult if we were going from BRT to streetcar.”

Though HNTB has been negotiating with the feds and working with the city-parish for some 18 months on the project, the administration never executed a contract with the firm because questions arose about whether it would even go forward. Jones says at some point HNTB will issue a scope of work to the city-parish, but for now, the first step is to outline the various steps that need to take place and come up with an action plan.

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