With certain issues, there’s often a central figure whose opinion you always want to know. If there’s a foreign policy incident, the Secretary of State should probably be consulted. If there’s a disease outbreak, the head of the Center for Disease Control should probably be on board. Want to gauge response to a major crime? Let’s see what the chief of police has to say.
And if you want to take some radical step pertaining to city streets, like taking out a traffic lane in the middle of downtown New Orleans, surely you’d want to know what Chief Traffic Engineer Allen Yrle thinks of it. Heck, you might think his support would be considered crucial.
Alas, you would be wrong.
Stating December 1st, a dedicated, buffered bicycle lane will replace one of the existing traffic lanes on Baronne Street from Calliope to Canal for most of the way. Laughably, this is being pitched as a six-month “pilot project,” because we all know that the city is just going to throw its hands up and say “my bad” if traffic snarls result, especially after committing so much time and money to this plan.
Leaving the nitty-gritty to his subordinates, Mayor Landrieu announced the move with a typically dull, generic statement that can basically be summed up with “bikes are good.”
“Biking is an important mode of transportation in New Orleans that is a healthy, safe, and equitable commuting option for our residents and visitors,” said Landrieu. “As bicycle ridership increases, the City is committed to expanding our network of bikeways.”
The Landrieu Administration also claimed, quite counterintuitively, that the impact on vehicular traffic would be minimal. The city commissioned a New Orleans consulting firm, GCR, to study the issue using data generated by the Department of Public Works. GCR in turn concluded that the delay for motorists would only be in the range of 1 to 2 minutes – and this was supposedly a highly conservative estimate.
If that doesn’t sound right to you just on a raw, intuitive level, it’s because it’s not. That was certainly Yrle’s take, which just came to light this past week.
“There is no mention of the fact that the traffic using the intersections of Poydras and Baronne and Howard and Baronne will experience significant delay during the peak period (including level-of-service F at Howard when future traffic is added).” Yrle wrote in an e-mail to Public Works Department Director Mark Jernigan back in September, criticizing the GCR report. “The in-house analysis done in May shows that these delays increase between 100 percent and 300 percent.”
Yrle also noted that the city could not tweak light times to compensate. “In our CBD grid system, we do not have the luxury of increasing green time at the traffic signals until the Baronne demand is met,” Yrle argued. “Poydras and Howard are operating at or near capacity already and cannot afford to lose any green time.”
For his part, Jernigan gave an appropriately limp defense to moving forward with the plan. At a subsequent public meeting, he acknowledged that service on Baronne is predicted to go from a “C” to a “D,” and also admitted that, under his own figures, the actual average delay for vehicles could be as high as six minutes, presumably with greater potential delays at peak travel times.
Ultimately, Jernigan indicated that the city would have to push forward to know for sure what the impact would be. I’m not sure that’s comforting, at least given the record of opposition from his own traffic engineer.
This doesn’t look good. It would certainly appear that the city decided to add the Baronne bike lane and then marshaled the data to support a plan that they had already decided to move forward with. The question then becomes exactly why the Landrieu Administration is so adamant that Baronne receive a bike lane.
The answer is redevelopment. There are a number of new residential projects in the CBD. Chief among them is the $200 million South Market District project, squeezed between Loyola Avenue and Baronne, which is presently nearing completion. The city already built the farcically ineffectual Loyola Streetcar line on one side of the project, and now they seek to top it off with a dubious bike lane one block over on the other side.
The proximity to the South Market District and similar redevelopment is not coincidental. Indeed, Public Works and the GCR specifically highlighted them as justifications for the Baronne bike lane. It wasn’t sufficient that developers have received local tax breaks and massive federal loans. No, that’s just not enough – the city also has to invest in useless infrastructure and give through traffic the short shrift with an ill-conceived bike lane. The powers-that-be are so obsessed with bolstering downtown redevelopment schemes that all other considerations have become secondary.
Businesses along Baronne are understandably furious. “I witness the congestion every day. If they’re reducing a traffic lane, that’s going to cause chaos,” complained one Baronne Street business owner to the New Orleans Advocate.
Nevertheless, as long as the Landrieu administration is comfortable making whatever sacrifices are necessary to the god of urban redevelopment, the needs of ordinary New Orleanians are bound to fall into that particular, insatiable maw. The practical realities of moving traffic in the CBD were never really at issue. They didn’t matter one bit.
And that, dear readers, is why the city’s chief traffic engineer was at loggerheads with the head of his department and Landrieu.
If you want to know about how to move traffic efficiently, you need to have a traffic engineer on board.
If you want to crassly promote real estate redevelopment schemes, you don’t.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.