The Capital Region’s industrial corridors have long had traffic issues. But Tom Yura, who oversees BASF’s Geismar plant, says the congestion has gotten noticeably worse over the past couple years.
What might once have been a half-hour commute has doubled for some of his plant’s workers. That leads to more aggressive driving, he says, and employees who show up to work frustrated by the traffic are unlikely to be at their most productive.
As cheap natural gas drives industry expansion, industry and government leaders have spent a lot of time, effort and money training workers to meet the demand. But having skilled workers doesn’t do much good if they can’t get to the job.
“Industry in the past was like, ‘Well, the state needs to resolve it,’” Yura says. “We have to take a more active role.”
And that is beginning to happen. Industry, business chambers, planners and governments are coming together to talk about how they can work together to address the Capital Region’s transportation woes.
While a few short-term measures already are being implemented, everyone involved says significant structural changes are necessary to create transportation planning that is proactive and sustainable. But what that new system will look like, and how it will be paid for, right now is anyone’s guess.
FERRIES, VANS AND CARPOOLS
Connie Fabré, who directs the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, says members complained to her about transportation issues in the fall of 2013.
“They were starting to see that long worker commutes were affecting their ability to attract a qualified workforce,” she says.
Those conversations led to formation of a “Baton Rouge traffic group,” which met with the Capital Area Transit System, the state’s Department of Transportation and Development, the Capital Region Planning Commission, the Center for Planning Excellence, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and others to brainstorm about low-cost efforts that could be implemented relatively quickly.
Fabré hopes an additional ferry will be added in Plaquemine pretty soon. Planners want to help workers arrange carpools, even among commuters who don’t necessarily work at the same company but perhaps live and work in close proximity.
CRPC has purchased Green Ride, a ridesharing software program that lets workers take surveys covering everything from music preference to smoking.
CRPC is launching a pilot of the program with various state agencies, in hopes of getting started in the next couple of months.
“Without new infrastructure projects to increase capacity, we need to find other ways to mitigate traffic congestion,” says J.T. Sukits, CRPC’s transportation alternatives coordinator.
Yura says the plants have eased morning congestion by staggering starting times for shifts and allowing flexible schedules, but have had less success with the afternoon rush. Fabré says employers also are talking about arranging van transports for workers, possibly collecting people on one side of the river, taking them onto a ferry, then either taking them on to the plant or letting them out to board other vans that would take them to their various plants.
“We have talked about a lot of great ideas, and people are very agreeable to saying that things are possible,” Fabré says. “But actually making them happen has been a bit slow.”
A lot of different agencies and employers are involved, making communication difficult, and everyone involved already has a full-time job. But sources involved in these conversations say there’s a growing realization that change can’t be put off any longer.
Ann Forte Trappey, president/CEO of Forte and Tablada and a BRAC board member who is the board’s leader on regional transportation efforts, says a BRAC survey shows transportation infrastructure is “by far the greatest concern.” The Capital Region is poised to pass the 400,000 jobs milestone, she says, with “tens of thousands of more jobs” on the way.
The traffic crunch is hitting plant owners where it hurts—the bottom line—as Fabré says plants are sometimes forced to pay higher wages to compensate for hellish commutes. Trappey says it’s a quality-of-life issue that calls for a “data-driven and comprehensive solution.”
“We’re reaching a tipping point, and the time for action is now,” Trappey says.
Short-term measures are expected to help, but what about new roads, bridges and/or transit projects? And what about the region’s overall planning process, which often is driven by politics rather than needs?
CRPC is modeling a new West Side Expressway, three new Mississippi River bridge locations, and the Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan, sometimes referred to as the “inner loop,” says Executive Director Jamie Setze. BUMP, if it comes to fruition, likely would be a toll road. CRPC also is updating environmental documentation for an La. 415/La. 1 connector and is in the early stages of working on an La. 30 master plan, Setze says.
Meanwhile, a new coalition, likely including GBRIA, BRAC, CPEX and others, is coming together to tackle the long-term structural problems, such as how infrastructure decisions get made and how projects get funded. A group first met in February to share ideas and has begun crafting a mission statement. The acronym CRISIS (Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions) has been suggested, although the name and full membership of the coalition have not been finalized.
Among many other questions, the group will look into whether the CRPC needs more money and staff to improve its effectiveness. A recent study by IBM for East Baton Rouge Parish found that “a siloed approach to data collection is compromising the region’s ability to effectively leverage transportation data.” The IBM report identified CRPC as a possible mediator that could “acquire appropriate data” and “create and standardize analysis procedures to quantify traffic problems, evaluate alternatives and prioritize projects and funding allocations.”
The need for data-driven regional planning also was a theme of a conference hosted by CPEX last May about meeting the demands created by industrial expansion.
“The key to having an effective plan is having quality, transparent data that enables us to weigh the costs and benefits of different projects,” says Jessica Kemp, CPEX’s vice president for policy and advocacy. “That’s another piece that is not readily available at this point.”
Louisiana could be facing yearly deficits for some time, and the state already has a reported $12 billion road maintenance backlog. Yura says residents might need to be open to public/private partnerships, toll roads and higher gasoline taxes. He echoes the need to rely on data to drive the process, and says it will be important for stakeholders to support the process even if their favorite project turns out to not be the highest priority.
“I wish it would all be free, but it’s not,” Yura says. “Let’s get behind the most cost-effective way to handle this and get it done, and let’s not sit here and complain about it for the next 10 years.”
Industry pinch points: A Baton Rouge Area Traffic and Infrastructure Working Group, including GBRIA, BRAC, CPEX, CATS, LED, DOTD and CRPC, has identified the following industry “pinch points” in the Capital Region, based on plant surveys and anecdotal evidence:
- La. 1/Plaquemine to I-10 Bridge to downtown Baton Rouge
- La. 1/Plaquemine to Highway 190 and the “old bridge”
- La. 30/west of Ashland Road to I-10
- La. 22/La. 70 Sunshine Bridge/Donaldsonville
Other short-term solutions the group has discussed include:
- An additional ferry at Plaquemine and increasing car and van pool priority
- Rideshare programs and incentives, including Green Ride, employer tax incentive, and Uber
- Commuter education regarding alternate routes, traffic information resources, ridesharing and so on
- CATS going out of parish, private engagements, and coordinated park n’ ride arrangements with contractors
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of 10/12 Industry Report.