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A Tale of Two Streets

By Maggie Heyn Richardson
To the south, there is Nicholson Drive, Louisiana Highway 30, a major corridor that runs from downtown Baton Rouge past Tiger Stadium and continues southward to Ascension Parish. In the last decade, the stretch between downtown and LSU, in particular, has seen a flurry of investment, including new multi-family housing, retail and commercial complexes and the 35-acre Water Campus.

To the north, there is Plank Road, one of the city’s original commercial corridors and a reflection of early suburbanization and industry growth in Baton Rouge. Once home to scores of middle class plant workers, it is riddled today with urban decay, blight and disinvestment. It’s also home to one of the most violent zip codes in the nation.

These two significant local roadways do not intersect, but linking them is at the heart of a new project that could create a 10-mile corridor through the city’s urban core, supported by Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a fast, efficient electric-powered express bus system, and a key component in transit-oriented developments across the country.

RDA’s Chris Tyson
RDA’s Chris Tyson

The project addresses a critical need on Plank Road, which has the second highest level of bus ridership in East Baton Rouge Parish, one of the highest numbers of households without vehicles and one of the highest rates of pedestrian fatalities in the state. The project also picks up the recently sidelined plan for a $170 million light rail, or tram, system along Nicholson Drive between LSU and downtown. In February, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced Baton Rouge would no longer pursue funding for the tram project, opting for an expansion of BRT throughout the parish instead.

Fusing the two ideas is seen as a cost-effective way to address a swath of planning issues in both north and south Baton Rouge while also leveraging local, state and federal resources, says Chris Tyson, executive director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority.

“It was important that we salvage the work done on Nicholson to date, and hold our place in line with the Federal Transit Association (FTA),” says Tyson. “There is precedent with the FTA for changing an application’s mode and scope midstream, if we moved toward something that would engender consensus.”

The RDA convened a handful of key players, says Tyson, including the Capital Area Transit System, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the Capital Region Planning Commission, the Center for Planning Excellence, the Department of Public Works and HNTB, the infrastructure planning consultant the city had previously retained to lead the Nicholson tram planning process.

“This represents a special set of opportunities, and is proof that collaboration across silos works,” Tyson says. “A lot of agencies and players sat together and came to the consensus that a BRT line that included Plank and Nicholson in a unified corridor made sense.”

Meanwhile, the RDA has been able to acquire and “land bank” 90 parcels of blighted, adjudicated properties along or near Plank Road. Tyson says this presents a rare opportunity for guiding future land use at the same time a new BRT line will be planned for the area.

“These were vacant, unoccupied and overgrown lots, where illegal dumping and more has been taking place,” says Tyson. “These were properties that no one wanted to buy at auction. We want to bring them back into commerce.”

Over the fall of 2018, the original plan that had been in the works for Nicholson Drive will be redrafted to include the Nicholson-Plank BRT corridor. It will be submitted in September 2019 to the FTA Small Starts Program for federal funding. The program requires a local match, which could be achieved through the forthcoming DOTD Road Transfer Program, says CATS Chief Executive Officer Bill Deville. That program transfers jurisdiction of state-managed roads to local authorities. Plank and Nicholson are scheduled for such a transfer.

Deville says the redefined project also takes advantage of momentum underway for improving public transportation on Plank Road. Through separate grants, CATS has been able to order three electric buses that will be incorporated into the fleet by the end of the year.

BRT routes are faster than local bus routes. They are supported by amenities like traffic signal priority, in which a green light could be held longer in order for an oncoming BRT bus to pass. Passengers can pre-pay, reducing boarding time. BRT buses feature wi-fi and stop at larger, modern shelters with a higher level of comfort, digital signage and real-time updates. Stops are usually about a mile apart to speed transportation time.

“We also see stations having a network of local transportation companies like Uber, Lyft and bikeshare stations,” says Deville.

Tyson says that simply running a fast bus line through a distressed neighborhood like Plank Road isn’t enough to reverse its pattern of decay.

“The RDA takes a holistic view of development that looks at land use, economic development and community development,” says Tyson. “That includes how we address blighted parcels, what we’re doing for local businesses and what you need if you’re a member of this community, in terms of health care, education, public safety.”

So the RDA is coordinating a master planning process for the neighborhood that addresses not only the placement of the bus route, but ideas for how land use can support a range of community needs.

One of those needs is safer street conditions for pedestrians, says Rachel DiResto, vice president of Emergent Method and a member of the Sustainable Transportation Action Committee. The volunteer committee has pushed for safer conditions and multi-modal transportation across the parish.

“Plank is very wide, and yet it’s very commercial,” says DiResto. “DOTD has recognized its high rate of pedestrian fatalities. Neighborhoods and schools flank it, and you have many people regularly crossing the street on foot because they don’t have cars.”

The Nicholson-Plank project will unfold over the next year in several phases. A new study will look closely at traffic counts, route optimization and other transportation issues.

At the same time, says Tyson, the RDA will coordinate a neighborhood master plan for Plank Road. In early October, the RDA received $100,000 from JP Morgan Chase and another $15,000 from ExxonMobil to support the master planning process. Moreover, Tyson says ExxonMobil is taking over the maintenance of the some of the land-banked lots. A request for proposals will be circulated in mid-fall with a planner identified by the end of 2018.

Tyson says one of the most promising components of the project is the idea of connecting one of CATS’ largest riderships to thriving areas of the city – downtown and LSU – that offer employment.

“Connecting Plank is going to be a powerful economic driver in terms of addressing our local workforce development needs,” he says. “That’s a powerful testament to a city that feels divided.”