Hope For a Better Economy: Link Baton Rouge and New Orleans
By Christopher Tidmore,
Each day as I walk, knocking on the doors of District 82, I always come across at least a couple of people thinking of leaving the state.
At the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, some have trouble looking back at a destructive disaster--when they still live everyday with the consequences of the storm.
The snail's pace of the recovery, endless stories of criminality and hypocrisy from our political "leaders", and endless blame game, are frequent themes.
Many, though, just wish to move to a place where the economy works. Here, in Louisiana , none of our politicians seem to have a plan to advance the economy beyond where it was pre-Katrina. The goal seems to return to third world tourist/resources business climate that dominated wages and trade prior to August 28, 2005.
Unfortunately, to mix two cliches, you can't go home again, and New Orleans must grow into something better--or it will surely die.
Several concepts promise to help diversify our economy. The Broadway South tax credits, which I was proud to help conceive with Roger Wilson (though he and Bill Hines deserve most of the credit for the bill's passage), could bring a new theatrical economy, with New Orleans becoming the launching pad for national Broadway touring companies and musical tours from Tim McGraw to Riverdance.
I--and several of my fellow candidates running for the legislature in other districts--advocate a phase out of the income tax for those citizens and retirees over the age of 57. With this financial incentive, New Orleans and South Louisiana could become a retirement haven. Particularly this income tax free zone could lure back many of those who left to make a successful living and wish to return in their later years.
Men like Conrad Appel and Gene Schrieber map a future where our disparate port systems could coordinate their marketing appeals and present a united front: "the world's largest port system wants to do business with you".
Each of these ideas seeks to bring new opportunities, but they alone, are not enough. We, the citizens of Greater New Orleans, have to acknowledge that we alone cannot build a strong economy.
And, our brethren in the Greater Baton Rouge area must note that they may have the business climate, but the lack the cultural depth to attract the best and brightest to move themselves and their money to Southeast Louisiana .
Together, though, Baton Rouge and New Orleans could become the next Dallas/Forth Worth or New York to Philadelphia corridor--a cultural and economic hub that will attract investment and reverse out-migration.
A plan to more effectively link the economies of Baton Rouge and New Orleans is a gift that we can give the working men and women, as we approach Labor Day, the celebration of they who make our economy.
Through a real, direct economic plan, we can give them the one commodity that will stop people from leaving--hope.
To achieve an integration of the economic efforts of the two cities, we need a sea change in attitudes. That can only come from our political and business leaders giving the idea more than lip service, but actively trying to bring our local companies in cooperation and our port systems in coordination.
But, we also need to make it easier to for people to travel between, not only the downtowns of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but the bedroom communities in between from Prairieville to LaPlace, Donaldsonville to Westwego.
The essence of linking the economies of the River Region is not a some political entity, but people living in a continuous line from the capitol to the Crescent City, with the transportation infrastructure that if one parent wants to work in Baton Rouge and the other in New Orleans, it is easy for them to do so, and live in between.
We can achieve this linkage in three ways.
People talk about building high speed rail lines. This is ridiculous and would be too expensive to be considered. However, there are rail lines between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and after Katrina, a test program proved that Amtrak trains could easily run from the downtowns of each with stops in Prairieville, Sorrento, LaPlace, on the East Bank and Plaquemines, Donaldsonville, and Avondale on the West Bank (before crossing the Huey P. Long Bridge).
Along the length of my own legislative district, planners have drawn up stops, for non-express service, at Armstrong Airport , River Ridge, Elmwood, Oak Street, Riverbend, Lower Garden District, and Downtown New Orleans, creating a rapid rail system along the river. (Similar stops could occur in the Great Baton Rouge area across parish lines.)
The tracks exist. We need not spend one penny to construct them. All the legislature must do is stand up to the railroad lobbyists and pass right of ways for these transport systems. The cost for a subsidy is less than $5 million according to some estimates, a fraction of what Baton Rouge and New Orleans spend on bus systems. People armed with an alternative to automobiles and a cheap and easy means to travel between the cities would have a reason to spur economic interconnection.
Roads in the Ring Cities
The bedroom communities along the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans have seen explosive growth. But, the roads that link them to I-10 or the Mississippi River Bridges are two lanes and antiquated, keeping people "bottled up" during rush hour periods and less likely to want to make a car communte very far, particularly to New Orleans or Baton Rouge , whichever is more distant.
There are many examples I can use, but the best is Highway 73 in the Prairieville area. Part of the same Jefferson Hwy that runs through District 82, it has become a transit link for the suburban subdivisions that link it to River Road and the Sunshine Bridge and I-10.
It is crowded all of the time, and as a state road, is the responsibility of the legislature to widen. But, why should the constituents of metro New Orleans care about Prairieville?
After Katrina, many local moved there to be close enough to Metairie to commute to work and repair their homes. Normally, it should be less than an hour drive, no worse than coming from Covington to Downtown NOLA. But, thanks to the backup along the road, driving times can easily exceed an hour.
Many New Orleanians who were commuting until their lives were restored considered the extra fifteen to twenty minutes each way too much. They decided to either seek jobs in the closer Baton Rouge, or just leave Louisiana altogether.
Most liked Prairieville, and might have even lived there if they could catch a train or make a simple drive to "home" in New Orleans . Without that easy access they left. Others could divide the task when one part of a couple took a job in Baton Rouge and the other in New Orleans . Easier access would mean both would work to enrich the area as a whole. Without it, sooner or later, one--or both--will give up.
Better "Interstate" Connections
Highway 73, like many roads just leads into a choke point at I-10. What we need is a major transport corridor, at interstate level, besides the I-10.One suggestion has come from former Donaldsonville Mayor Mayor Harold Capello. In the interest of future evacuations from New Orleans or transit between the Crescent City and Baton Rouge , upgrade Highway 3127 into a four lane, limited access, interstate level road.
Running from I-310, just prior to the roadway's end, along the West Bank of Mississippi River, it intersects Highway 1 just South of West Baton Rouge and links into the I-10 system. Ironically, while the road is two lane right now, the right-of-ways and grade upgrades were built almost two decades ago to construct a second span parallel to the first.
"If you just paved the road, people could drive on it tomorrow," Capello told me. His plan, which he has argued for before Congress and the Legislature for the past seven years would widen 3127 and build bypasses with exits on open land around the riverside communities of Donaldsonville, White Castle , and Plaquemine.
"The road would take pressure off of I-10. It could cut evacuation times out of New Orleans in half."
Capello's interest in constructing the roadway is also to aid his West Bank town. As he noted, the historic community of Donaldsonville, whose downtown bears a close resemblance to Covington, is only 30 minutes from downtown Baton Rouge and an hour from downtown New Orleans--right now. With a full freeway, the commute times would make this West Bank community ideal to become bedroom extensions of the metros.
If Baton Rouge and New Orleans are to grow into the same the city, affordable middle class housing options within short driving time of both cities are a necessity--so Capello contends.
At a million dollars per mile, Capello's vision for 3127 could be reached for less than $70 million. It could be the first step in an alternative freeway loop across South Louisiana .
Currently, I-49 has less than 30 miles of extensions to make complete the interstate all the way to New Orleans West Bank expressway. The remaining distance requires roughly $2 million per mile to extend roadway over wetlands without causing environmental damage. The state has asked the federal government for the monies, but an addition $60 million could bridge the gap.
Then, down the West Bank Expressway over the Crescent City Connection, I-10 at Airline comes within 300 yards of the freeway that, as one elected official put it "starts no where and goes to nowhere". The Earhart Expressway begins at Carrolton Ave. and goes to David Drive . Few cars use the completed roadway.
A simple look over the first overpass shows the closeness of 1-10 at Airline Dr . An extension over the open ground bordering the 17th St. Canal could be built for less than five million dollars, according to one transportation engineer we consulted.
Thus, building a road system is a direct benefit to the residents of District 82. An "interstate level highway" that runs through the center of the district could be accessable to the residents in case of Hurricane or easier transport between Downtown New Orleans and the Airport.
For example, from David Drive to Armstrong Airport , the state owns the former railroad land and could construct an interstate level road without requiring any eminent domain issues or excessive costs. Cost, roughly, $20 million.
At the Airport, a raised roadway could link I-10 over the airport access road or continue over Airline to link directly into I-310.
In other words for less than $200 million, an alternative evacuation route, taking pressure off of I-10 could be built. Such a route would allow the metros of Baton Rouge and New Orleans to grow together, along with bedroom communities stretching to Lafayette within an hour's drive of either downtown area. There is the added benefit to legislators that road construction rarely proves unpopular with their constituents, and this plan would cover most of South Louisiana .
Harry Hoyler, General Manager of KKAY 1590 AM White Castle/ Baton Rouge , a noted advocate of regional integration, has often said to me, "The different cities need each other to survive. Baton Rouge has business. New Orleans has soul. Together they create a 'quality of life' that attracts new residents for other states. The communities in between like Donaldsonville, Prairieville, and others have the land and resources to support affordably a new population...Only constructing a freeway system that supports major regional development can anchor this growth. Extending 3127 and linking it into I-49 and the Earhart creates something the Louisiana has never seen: a West Bank loop, outside the I-10. That could spawn growth the likes of which Louisiana has never seen."
And provide hope for a better economic future for the whole region. With a comprehensive set of connections that kicks off regional economic growth, such a plan might enough hope to even keep a few residents of District 82 from moving.
September 2, 2007 12:29 PM