Baton Rouge Roadwork Easing Post-Katrina Gridlock

Mon May 22, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Lisa Coston

With forecasters predicting an above-average hurricane season for 2006, residents along the Gulf Coast, still reeling from the devastation of Katrina, are quietly anxious as the summer months begin.

The residents of the city of Baton Rouge and the parish of East Baton Rouge, LA, are left wondering whether Mother Nature will allow one of America’s fastest-growing cities to continue repairing and reconstructing its streets to ease its sudden overpopulation.

As an overflow city closest to New Orleans after Katrina — located 80 mi. west, up Interstate 10 — Baton Rouge added an estimated 250,000 new residents in the months immediately after Katrina.

For a city-parish with an estimated pre-Katrina population of 400,000, the added influx of Katrina survivors and construction contractors only compounded the already problematic congestion and gridlock on Baton Rouge streets.

“Traffic was a real problem before Katrina,” said Mike Bruce, a civil engineer of Baton Rouge based ABMB Engineers Inc.

“But it’s still a significant impact after Katrina. Right after [Katrina], traffic shot up 30 to 35 percent, because nobody knew when to drive or not to. It was total gridlock.”

The city-parish estimates 100,000 of the new people have stayed to work and live in the area.

According to Baton Rouge’s Chief Administrative Officer Walter Monsour, along with the new residents, came new vehicles.

“We estimated about a 30 percent increase in traffic,” said Monsour. “As to how many [residents] will remain on a permanent basis, we do not really know … we hear anecdotally that the vast majority will remain, but that is a factor of how quickly New Orleans can repair itself and how well Baton Rouge can absorb the additional people.”

Within two days after Katrina, Monsour and Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, met with Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other elected officials to “plead our case,” concerning monies for infrastructure repairs, Monsour said.

Already Beyond the Horizon

To date, Baton Rouge has asked for approximately $4 billion in federal and state aid, but the city had a growth plan in place years before Katrina.

The Horizon Plan, adopted in 1992, is a 20-year comprehensive land use and development plan for the city of Baton Rouge and the Parish of East Baton Rouge. The original report estimated a population of 490,000 by the year 2012.

But because of Katrina, the 490,000 total was easily reached in 2006. With the unexpected increase, the Baton Rouge Planning Commission began an update and revision of the Horizon Plan in February 2006.

In addition, to help fund and alleviate the traffic problems pre- and post-Katrina, Baton Rouge voters approved the city-parish’s Green Light Plan in October 2005.

The plan, which appropriates more than $460 million, extends the existing sales and use tax — or “pot-hole tax” — for 23 years, instead of the regular renewal at three- to five-year intervals.

True to its name, the bonded money from the plan will allow Baton Rouge to “green light” road improvements and projects that would otherwise take years to fund.

Seventy percent of the money is projected to be used for transportation improvements including the construction of new roads, widening of existing roads and intersection and signalization improvements, along with the necessary engineering, construction management and drainage requirements for these projects.

Monsour believes with the inflated cost of construction materials, the cost of financing the Green Light program “pales in comparison to the rising costs of construction.”

As well, he believes the plan will allow the city-parish to have the money available immediately to purchase rights of way, speed up the construction process and alleviate current gridlock problems.

“It will vastly improve the surface streets by increasing capacity, establish a good foothold in the battle for a true north-south, east-west parish wide street grid, and it will ultimately relieve the stress on I-10 and I-12 as our main means of traversing the parish.”

Policy makers and elected officials from Baton Rouge — making up Louisiana’s Metropolitan Planning Organization transportation policy committee — voted in February to move forward with the proposed widening of Interstate 10 from the Mississippi River Bridge to its split with Interstate 12.

An ’Intelligent’ Solution

According to Louisiana DOTD Spokesperson Sherri Dupre, DOTD obtained legislative approval to let $30 million worth of design-build contracts for Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) projects to alleviate traffic congestion on I-10 from Lafayette to New Orleans.

These improvements include dynamic message signs, controllable closed-circuit television cameras and traffic sensors to monitor congestion levels and traffic counts. The ITS project will be completed in four phases. Construction on Phase I, which is being advertised now, will include the bridge over the Bonnet Carre spillway.

One of the most traffic-laden intersections in Baton Rouge (before and after Katrina) is the Airline Highway and Siegen Lane intersection.

A Baton Rouge/DOTD project let before Katrina, it was to ease the flow of nearly 5,700 cars during rush hour. It took motorists an average of three minutes to traverse the intersection.

For motorists trying to turn left from Airline, the wait time often caused the two left turn lanes to back up, to the point that it caused other drivers trying to go straight through the intersection to have to wait.

Working with Michael Bruce and ABMB Engineering Inc., a continuous flow intersection (CFI) — the third such intersection in the country —was designed to alleviate the congestion.

“For Baton Rouge, this is cutting edge,” said Bruce. “There’s a prototype in New York, and a working one in Maryland, but this is the third one in the United States. It’s the best implementation of a CFI, by far in the U.S.”

According to Bruce, basically the function of a CFI is that the intersection’s left turn lane feeds into a special CFI lane, which then reroutes into the cross street near the main signalized intersection. The traffic at the left-turn lane, CFI crossover and main intersection are all operated by a single controller, which coordinates the timing and provides a steady continuous traffic flow.

For those drivers turning left from Airline onto Siegen or South Sherwood Forest, a new traffic light is situated 300 ft. from the intersection, allowing them to enter a left-turn bay. Once the drivers on Airline, who are stopped at the intersection, move through the intersection, those turning left will get a green light.

After the left turn green light, the drivers turning left will cross oncoming Airline road traffic, which is now stopped by a red light. Once they cross, they drive into two new lanes that are parallel with Airline and then continue with their left turns through the intersection.

Building the CFI

With a contract let at $4.4 million, Baton Rouge’s Coastal Bridge LLC began the reconstruction of the 1-mi. intersection in February 2005, along with subcontractors Gulf Industries Inc. and VR Contractors out of Baton Rouge.

Together, Coastal Bridge and its subcontractors handled drainage, dirt work, base course, asphalt and electrical lighting for the new intersection.

With off-peak working shifts and Katrina hitting right in the middle of this project, Kelly of Coastal Bridge and project manager for the CFI build, describes this job as challenging.

Working overnight from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. was just one of the challenges faced by this team.

“Working at night puts a real strain on a core organization,” said Sills. “The actual field managers like it at night, but it’s hard to get a part at night and it’s not safe at night, because of the drunks on the road, or drivers hitting our trucks.”

Sills said that several workers’ trucks were hit by drivers moving through the intersection, and even though one might think it would be safer to work when there are less drivers on the road, Sills and his team found out quite the opposite.

“It seems normal that it should be safer at night but it’s not, because the public is not aware of what is happening, until they are really right up on it,” he explained. “Working at night is not safer for the worker; it’s safer for the driver.”

The project was rolling along, on time, when a second challenge to the project appeared.

Hurricane Katrina.

Like everyone else working in the path of the storm, life came to a standstill. For eight weeks — between Hurricanes Rita and Katrina — the CFI project was virtually shut down.

“Workers were spread out all over the place and materials were needed,” said Sills. “It became a lot harder to get materials here, then the traffic increased by, I think, 50,000 or more … all those people just made it harder to finish the intersection project.”

To pick up the slack left by the eight-week delay, and to finish the contract on time, Sills had to add a day crew, so he had 50 laborers and another 80 truck drivers combined at any given time.

“I got it done on time, because we had to add another crew to get it back on track,” Sills said. “We had to hit it and hit it hard after Katrina … we made money on the project but could we made more had Katrina not hit.”

Using Coastal Bridge owned equipment from John Deere, along with Cat and Roadtec pavers, Komatsu loaders and backhoes, the workers imported more than 20,000 cu. yds. (15,300 cu m) of dirt onto the site. As well, they laid 12,953 tons (11,750 t) of asphalt over a 1-mi. area of newly created left turn bays, frontage road and right turn lanes.

Even with the stress of Katrina pushing his workers extra hard toward the April 2006 finish of the project, Sills credited the skill of his subcontractors for making this project an overall success.

“Subcontractors were a tremendous amount of help,” Sills said. “If I had a bad electrical sub it would have been awful. Jack Hawker and Gulf Industries were great. All of my subcontractors did a great job.”

The CFI at Airport and Siegen officially opened in April, and already it seems to be abating the congestion to traffic-beleaguered Baton Rouge.

According to Bruce, ABMB began looking at test data from the intersection and everything looks good thus far.

“Signal timing was the most complicated issue, but we seem to have that under control,” Bruce said. “Getting the public used to the intersection is the other issue, and it seems drivers are figuring it out a lot faster now.”

Monsour agreed. “The CFI is working very well and we expect it to work even more efficiently as people continue to become familiar with the concept and the construction on the shoulders is finished.”

Depending on the success of the current CFI, Baton Rouge may consider more of them in the future.

“There is at least one other intersection that we are studying for a CFI. Depending on the study’s results and the success of the present CFI, we will consider a second CFI,” Monsour said.

More Work Coming

DOTD and Baton Rouge officials have several projects slated to start soon to help eliminate traffic problems now and into the future, especially if more people pour into the city-parish in the wake of another hurricane.

These include a free emergency Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans bus service for hurricane-displaced residents, a joint initiative to implement a passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, fast-tracking Baton Rouge’s ITS projects, including two computerized signal synchronizations in Baton Rouge.

Though no federal funding has come through, yet, for Baton Rouge, Monsour hoped the success of the Green Light Program literally paved the way for the future funding of road projects that are very much needed.

“We hope that early successes of the Green Light Program over the next couple of years will posture us to go back to the voters to increase the size of the program.”

To see a CFI at work, visit CEG