|A new policy to regulate traffic flow in Baton Rouge could put business owners at odds with planners.|
Steven Bernhard says that when his video game store, Gameware, moved from the College Creek retail development on College Drive, down a few doors to the old Blockbuster Video, his regular customers had one thing to say about it.
“They said it was much easier to get in and out of,” says Bernhard, Gameware owner and president. Business had been good in College Creek, a small strip of stores just off the corner of Perkins Road and College Drive, but Bernhard was aware that his visibility and access could have been better.
Incoming customers had to arrive exclusively from College Drive's northbound right lane, while outbound patrons found it impossible to do anything but turn right and join the northbound flow, even if they wanted to head south. Gameware's neighbor, Suckers, a food product and catering company, was facing similar issues. The company closed the dining room part of its operations in May, citing access and visibility issues as the culprits.
Gameware's new location, in the middle of College Drive, is now accessible from multiple access points, and departing patrons have the benefit of a traffic light to facilitate left turns against the thoroughfare's notorious traffic.
Such access issues can make or break the retail experience for Baton Rouge consumers and dramatically impact the bottom line for small businesses, both of which have watched traffic worsen over the last decade in the parish.
Oregon-based planner John Fregonese, who led the creation of the FuturEBR master plan, cited Baton Rouge's heavy reliance on the interstate and a few arterial corridors as the chief reason for local travel delays. The issue is exacerbated by the lack of a functioning grid system and also by the hefty presence of access points for retail stores and commercial developments. Travel time is constantly slowed as motorists exit and enter roadways.
Now a new policy from the state Department of Transportation and Development aims to address these access issues, but it may come at the expense of property rights, say local developers and business owners.
DOTD's Access Connections Policy, a 2011 administrative update to an existing state statute, aims to create a consistently applied set of rules concerning the placement of curb cuts and access points along state roads. In Baton Rouge, this includes Airline Highway, Perkins Road, College Drive, Florida Boulevard and others.
The idea is to reduce the number of access points so that traffic continues to flow, and to use strategies like frontage roads and “right in, right out” turn lanes to create a more predictable environment with fewer conflict points, says DOTD spokesperson Jodi Conachen.
“The goal is to respect landowners' rights but to respect the overall infrastructure and the need to mitigate safety hazards,” Conachen says.
Center for Planning for Excellence Executive Vice President Rachel ?DiResto says there is value in managing flow on these roadways. “If arterial roadways have faster traffic flow, then you will see fewer interruptions and increased safety,” she says. “Ideally, you're getting people off these corridors to access what they need from frontage roads.”
Few dispute the policy's ease of application in new developments, or its value in preempting traffic issues in smaller communities across the state where congestion is not yet a reality. But DiResto and others acknowledge the difficulty in implementing the policy in a city like Baton Rouge, where congestion has been a problem for years and motorists are accustomed to established access points.
Phelps Dunbar attorney Erik Piazza, who represents a number of commercial developers, says he's advising clients with new developments to get on top of the rule. The real challenge, he says, comes from DOTD's intervention in existing properties.
The policy requires any owner with plans to “reconstruct, remodel or redevelop” a piece of property to obtain a new Access Connection Permit Certificate. Thus, business owners on state roads who want to update, add on or significantly improve their property face the possibility of having their established access points changed.
“The policy is trying to improve communities like Baton Rouge, but then you've got an owner whose improvements also do something good for the community facing lack of access,” he says.
Not only does this create an uncertain environment for owners with plans to expand or improve property, but it introduces new issues for potential buyers, says Piazza.
“If a property changes hands and the buyer wants to change the use, then you're looking at potential access changes,” says Piazza. “It introduces uncertainty, which nobody likes.”
Conachen says DOTD's intention is to have local traffic engineers work out issues case by case with business owners. But the policy doesn't grandfather them in. It also encourages possible sharing of driveways among existing developments, which sounds good in theory but could introduce thorny new issues, especially among businesses that have different levels of customer use, say developers.
“This will set a lot of things into play,” says veteran developer George Kurz of Kurz & Hebert. “Property owners have certain inalienable rights under the state constitution. DOTD has the right to regulate traffic, but there will be a question to be decided about whether they have the right to take away access.”
The Baton Rouge Growth Coalition has expressed to DOTD its concern over the policy's murkiness. Executive Director Scott Bardwell told DOTD that the policy's lack of inclusion of specific and worst-case scenarios has created an open-ended policy that lacks clarity.
Bardwell wrote in response to the policy last year: “The development community is left with a great deal of uncertainty as it relates to property title and usage, since DOTD is free to apply this new policy on a case by case basis.” The organization is in an ongoing dialogue with DOTD, says Bardwell.
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