What can we do to address traffic congestion in our state?
Continuous traffic congestion on Interstates 10 and 12 all the way from the Texas border to the Mississippi line. Major connecting roads filled beyond capacity. A 22% increase in urbanized land. These are some of the projected outcomes over the next four decades for the southern tier of the state - home to 35 parishes and nearly three-fourths of Louisiana's population. The future is coming, and it may not be pretty. Watch "Gridlock 2050: Transportation and Land Use in South Louisiana" on Louisiana Public Square.
* Walter Brooks, N.O. Regional Planning Commission and a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority's Infrastructure Task Force.
* Peter Calthorpe, architect and urban designer who is serving as the Lead planner for the "Louisiana Speaks" planning initiative.
* Cedric Grant, Deputy Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.
* Andy Kopplin, Executive Director, the Louisiana Recovery Authority
Special Guests in the Audience:
* Ann Guissinger, Strategic Advisor, LRA Economic & Workforce Development Task Force
* Elizabeth "Boo" Thomas, President and CEO, Center for Planning Excellence.
“Mandeville seems to be so spread out now. It almost seems like two separate communities. The time to travel from one location to another has quadrupled.”
- Carrie Segrave, sixth-generation Mandeville resident
According to transportation analysts working with the Louisiana Speaks planning process, the traffic situation for all of South Louisiana – an area that crosses 35 parishes and impacts three quarters of the state’s population - is headed in the wrong direction. It’s going from “Bad” to “Worse.” If the state continues its current population growth and land use patterns, by 2050, traffic volume across Interstates 10 and 12 and connecting roadways to Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Houma/Thibodaux and New Orleans will be “at” or “beyond capacity.” (Figure 1) The Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain is a prime example of the developing gridlock scenario.
The construction of the Causeway over Lake Pontchartrain and more recently additional migration from the Greater New Orleans region due to Hurricane Katrina, have spurred rapid growth in the Northshore area. The city of Mandeville, once a walking community, has become a town almost exclusively dependent on the automobile. And while the opening of the Causeway initially reduced drive time for Northshore commuters, over the last ten months Causeway traffic has increased an average of 13.3 percent, creating more congestion and longer commutes.
Figure 1 (Source: Louisiana Speaks)
Since the Hurricanes of 2005, many communities in South Louisiana are experiencing unprecedented and unexpected growth as the state’s population shifts. The additional residents have created transportation and funding concerns. In Lafayette, city-parish officials have identified sixty-two road and drainage projects that are needed to keep pace with growth in the area. On November 7th, Lafayette voters faced a 1-cent sales tax increase to help fund them. But many of the projects identified for construction are state highways. And revenue projections by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) say funding falls far short of what will be needed to maintain roads and build new ones.
Currently, the state collects a 20 cent roads tax on every gallon of gasoline Louisiana motorists pump. Four cents of this is dedicated to the TIMED (Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development) Program that funds 16 major transportation projects throughout the state. The remaining 16 cents goes into Louisiana’s Transportation Trust Fund, with the majority used to finance the DOTD and provide matches for federal subsidized projects.
Since the gas tax is based on the number of gallons rather than the price per gallon, it does not keep pace with inflation. Currently in Louisiana there is a backlog of more than $12 billion of unmet construction needs according to Mark Lambert, DOTD Communications Director. As material and equipment costs continue to rise, by 2009, Lambert says, DOTD will be using all moneys for maintaining roads and will be forced to turn back federal moneys because it will not have the matching funds.
Bill Fontenot, DOTD district administrator, notes that, like Lafayette, other Louisiana cities may be facing local tax elections to fund road improvements. “They're dealing with the true issue, that state funding constraints are not going to allow the state to be here anytime soon with any of these improvements."
While conventional wisdom has been to add more lanes to reduce traffic, research shows that this approach may actually encourage more commuting and ultimately create more congestion.
To avoid the state’s 2050 “at” and “beyond capacity” scenario, some urban planners are recommending a broader look at the connections between Louisiana’s future transportation needs and its land use practices.
At current growth levels, South Louisiana faces an increase of 456 square miles of urbanized land by 2050 according to LRA analysts – a 22% increase. This means residents there will be forced to travel an average of 34% more miles within their metro regions. They will spend an average of 32% more hours in their cars. (Figure 2) Louisiana already ranks 14th in the nation for travel time to work according to 2005 Census Bureau data – even higher than Texas.
Figure 2 (Source: Louisiana Speaks)
“Acadiana” = Lafayette area; “Capital” = Baton Rouge area; “Imperial” = Lake Charles area;
“South Central” = Houma/Thibodaux area; “Regional Planning Commission” = New Orleans area
Since World War II, it has been common practice to separate different types of land uses, such as work places, retail outlets, and homes. This separation increases the distance between destinations and a reliance on driving. An alternative to this approach is what the EPA describes as “smart growth” - development that “is more town-centered, is auto-accessible but also accommodates transit and pedestrian activity.” Neighbor-hoods are compact with small lots and a greater mix of housing, commercial and retail development similar to the New Orleans French Quarter. The Quarter is a model of what planners call a “Traditional Neighborhood Development” (TND) - designed so residents can walk to businesses from home.
But do Americans want to live within walking distance of their Town Center? According to 2001 U.S. Census Bureau data, only 17.7% choose to live in the Central City area of their towns, while 60.2% of Americans currently live in the suburbs. The remaining 22.1% live outside metropolitan areas. But Lafayette architect and “smart growth” advocate, Steve Oubre, says that once a TND is built in a community, people migrate towards it. The challenge, he says, is the mindset of city planning commissions. Oubre notes that most cities have regulations that discourage the types of mixed uses that these developments involve. In order to build his “Villages of River Ranch” in Lafayette, for example, Oubre had to obtain 119 variances from the local development code to allow mixed uses, narrower streets and other features that are illegal there. The additional hurdles for developers can mean higher prices for lots and homes in TND’s. Despite the obstacles, there are currently six more TND’s underway in Louisiana.
When TNDs are built in coordination with a regional transit system, particularly rail, the result is called a transit-oriented development (TOD). Peter Calthorpe, one of Louisiana Speaks chief consultants, introduced this term in his 1993 book, The Next American Metropolis. At that time, TODs were largely theoretical but today there are over 100 such developments across the United States. Emerging Trends in Real Estate (2005 & 2006) rated TOD as the top real estate prospect for future development.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, statewide, 81% of Louisiana workers drove to work alone in 2005. Only 11% carpooled, and an average of just 2% took public transportation. But in New Orleans, built before the car dominated urban design, the figure is much higher. Twenty percent of commuters walked, bicycled or took mass transit to their place of employment. And those who did use public transportation generated significant savings, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2005 Urban Mobility Study. It contends that New Orleans saved $35.7 million through public transportation usage in 2003. The savings are calculated based on the “cost of congestion” which assigns value to the extra travel time and the extra fuel consumed by vehicles traveling at slower speeds in traffic congestion.
Another benefit from mass transit usage is better air quality, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). More automobiles on the road creates more nitrogen oxide, a component of vehicle emissions, and the potential for increased ozone production. In 2003, the five-parish Baton Rouge area was classified as “severe” for ozone by the EPA. June 2007 is the EPA's target for the region to attain an ozone level below 85 parts-per-billion. The key to reaching the standard may be the reduction of vehicle emissions.
But mass transit can be costly. While major roadway construction can cost $4-$6 million per mile, a bus rapid transit line can cost $10-$50 million per mile. Light rail systems are even more expensive at $20-$100 million per mile. But has the state’s shifting population made mass transit more appealing? The LA Swift bus service, started after Katrina in October of 2005 to shuttle commuters between Baton Rouge and the Crescent City, initially averaged about 300 riders per day. Today it transports about 900 per weekday. FEMA funding for LA Swift, however; will end by December. This has prompted a proposal from the DOTD to reinstitute passenger rail service between the two cities with 4 stops along the way. The “LA Rail” proposal includes $60 million in startup costs followed by $10 million annual operational costs for three years, some of which would be offset by passenger fares. Lambert says a rail system could create a “Baton Rouge/New Orleans” metropolitan region and spur economic growth for all areas involved.
John Landry, Chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) Infrastructure Task Force, said while the plan has appeal, there is already huge demand for the federal recovery dollars which DOTD is hoping can subsidize the project.
No matter what type of mass transit options may be in Louisiana's future, research suggests that transit systems must be coordinated with each other and with land use regulations to be most efficient and effective. Like most of the U.S., Louisiana currently has little to no ability to coordinate different transportation systems or transportation and land use planning.
Louisiana's future transportation and land use strategies are just one aspect of what the state faces as it plans for its recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Over the last year, the Louisiana Speaks planning initiative has brought together national design experts, South Louisiana neighborhood residents, and local, city and parish officials to discuss how the state can best address its long-term coastal protection; coastal restoration, land use, transportation, and economic development issues. In January, Louisiana Speaks will present its findings to the public. Citizens will vote for the direction they hope will become the planning framework for future state agency policy and legislation in Louisiana. The choices we make about where and how we choose to live will serve as the roadmap for generations to come. According to Landry, who has been involved with LRA from the beginning, "In the long run, as hard as both of these storms have been, Louisiana, 10, 20, 50 years from now will be a better state."
Louisiana Recovery Authority
Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development
U.S. Census Bureau data