Transportation solutions not only about infrastructure, Brookings Institution expert tells BRAC crowd

An increased focus on transportation and infrastructure is not the answer to solving Baton Rouge’s notorious traffic problems, a Brookings Institution fellow told over 100 business and community leaders today at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s Signature Speaker Series.

Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy and the director of the program’s Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, explained that the issue must be addressed on a much broader scale, taking into account disruptive economic conditions and demographic shifts due to globalization, as well as the political and financial climate at both a state and local level, among many other complex factors.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves also offered remarks about Baton Rouge’s infrastructure and his ongoing work on a federal highway bill seeking to reconcile the significant decrease in national funding for transpiration infrastructure.

“We have to make sure we are synchronized at a federal state and local level,” Graves said. “The traffic in this region by some studies has been determined to be the worst traffic in the nation for a region of its size. That is completely unacceptable.”

Graves warned that without increased funding at a federal level and infrastructure solutions at a state level, the Capital Region risks strangling its economy. Puentes pointed out in his presentation that Louisiana is disproportionately reliant on the federal government compared to most other states for infrastructure dollars.

“The transportation discussion is too transportation focused,” Puentes explained. “The problem we have is that transportation is not a national conversation.”

And Puentes doesn’t think it needs to be. He said innovation needs to happen on a local level and national solutions will be driven from the bottom up, “not by folks in Washington.”

While Puentes specified he is not a transportation consultant, he offered some recommendations for Baton Rouge business leaders and the Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions, or CRISIS to pursue.

“Instead of looking at traffic congestion as the thing we are trying to solve, let’s try to solve job access,” he said. “When you start to do that as a metric, you start to look at investments very differently. Where can you get the most bang for your buck?”

He also stressed the importance of Louisiana becoming a “can-do” state when it comes to funding and financing.

“No matter what happens [in Washington], the state has to recognize it is going to have to do things by itself,” he said.

To do that, Puentes recommended investing smart through innovative tools like infrastructure banks or congestion pricing, bringing infrastructure measures to voters and taking a market-oriented approach.

—Gabrielle Braud

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