A project to reclaim Plank Road would link the area to downtown, LSU with rapid transit
By Sara Bongiorni
Planned redevelopment of Plank Road in north Baton Rouge centers on a model of fast, comfortable and reliable bus transit with a record of sparking investment in blighted corridors of big U.S. cities.
Transit-oriented elements of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority’s new Plank Road Project include affordable housing, mixed-use development and walkable streets along Plank’s commercial corridor and in surrounding residential streets.
Blight elimination, land banking of vacant structures and a push for big impact investments are additional elements of a historic initiative. The project is the first sweeping, cohesive effort to spur economic activity in North Baton Rouge along Plank from its southern terminus near I-110 north to Zion City identified by the redevelopment agency.
Bringing Bus Rapid Transit to Plank Road in a partnership with local government and the transit system is fundamental to the RDA’s push for resilient infrastructure, improved quality of life and new opportunities for one of the poorest areas in the state and nation.
“We want to make sure mobility infrastructure is at the forefront of the initiative,” says Chris Tyson, president and CEO of the RDA, whose additional revitalization initiatives include the Ardendale development off Florida Boulevard and the Electric Depot on Government.
Though a master plan for the Plank Road project won’t be completed in 2019, the agency is thinking big about Plank Road’s future and taking early steps toward its transformation.
It is moving 85 blighted structures on or near Plank into its land bank with the aim of eventually returning them to commerce. It is building community awareness via social media with the hashtag #ImaginePlankRoad and through events like a food-truck round-up and a recent trolley tour of Plank.
Geno McLaughlin heads community engagement for the agency. McLaughlin meets with Plank Road-area churches, neighborhood groups and others to ask residents what they need, want and don’t want in their neighborhood. “We don’t own Plank Road,” McLaughlin says. “We are asking people what is important to them.”
Meanwhile, new blight-fighting efforts by the mayor’s office and Baton Rouge Area Chamber are in step with the RDA’s vision for Plank Road and are poised to offer additional, early momentum.
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome has accelerated demolition of condemned structures across the parish, including in North Baton Rouge, after dedicating an additional $250,000 to that objective last year. City-parish public-works crews dismantled 292 condemned structures in East Baton Rouge in 2018, a jump of more than 200% over 2017.
Blighted structures are magnets for crime, a fact reinforced by a new LSU study that showed nearly half of 943 violent crimes in North Baton Rouge’s 70805 ZIP code in 2016 took place within 100 feet of a blighted structure.
Meanwhile, a proposal put forward by the chamber would speed the process of clearing title on tax-delinquent properties with the aim of returning them to productive use. The parish has 6,000 such structures, thousands of them in North Baton Rouge.
But Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, will be the focal point of any long-term strategy for Plank, and the redevelopment agency is pursuing it with speed.
In partnership with CATS, in late 2019, it will apply for federal transportation funds that could cover up to 60% of the $40 million to $50 million it would take to create a BRT line running from Plank on the north to Nicholson Drive to the south.
State road-transfer money could pay for the remaining cost of a system that, if all goes well, could be operating in Baton Rouge by 2021.
In BRT systems, high-capacity, sometimes reticulated buses transport riders along dedicated or semi-dedicated bus lanes that make fewer stops. On-board technology optimizes traffic-signal timing to give buses priority at intersections.
Platform-level boarding and pre-boarding fare collection streamline boarding to keep buses running on time.
Striking landscaping, distinctive station design, pedestrian features and public art are notable features in the 30 U.S. cities to invest in the model, also sometimes called busways or transitways.
BRT along Plank would give Louisiana its first such system and bring fast, efficient transit to the part of the parish with the greatest need for it by multiple measures. The 70805 ZIP code that includes Plank Road has the highest concentration of zero-car households and second-highest rate of transit use in the region.
It would enhance, rather than replace, existing CATS bus service in Baton Rouge.
The RDA has added good reason to focus on BRT. The transit model is drawing increased attention as a catalyst for new investment in blighted areas.
A 2016 study published in National Institute for Transportation and Communities, for instance, found that multifamily housing construction doubled in areas within half a mile of BRT lines. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration notes that such systems “can become a driving force for city building and design,” and that the longer-term investment BRT requires is tied to economic activity near the busways.
The U.S. transportation agency also says that public investment in BRT signals “strong public commitment to the quality of the corridor, which may, in turn, attract private investment and contribute to the revitalization of existing neighborhoods.”
BRT’s track record in a growing number of cities underscores the point.
In Cleveland, BRT is credited with bringing $9.5 billion in investments as varied as hospitals and microbreweries to what had been a blighted urban corridor.
Albuquerque is using BRT to combat poverty and kickstart redevelopment in its aging Central Avenue district. Its fast and reliable ART bus system now forms the backbone of the city’s transit system.
Kansas City is planning its third BRT line. Its new Prospect MAX busway will feature real-time arrival data, signal prioritization, sleek buses with on-board Wi-Fi and distinctive, pedestrian-friendly stations with original neon artwork and other public art.
As McLaughlin sees it, running state-of-the-art bus transit along Plank would bring reliable transportation to a community that needs it while laying the groundwork for something more.
“It’s also the perfect opportunity to be intentional about development in an area that investors have deemed un-investible,” he says.