Government entities have a less than stellar reputation when it comes to working together and communication. However, the Essen Lane Widening project in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is doing much to dispel the myth. The project involves multiple government entities who have worked well together and had smooth communications.
Essen Lane, between Perkins Road and Jefferson Highway/Interstate 12 sees a great deal of traffic with estimates pegging the number of daily drivers at 55,000. Weekday peak driving periods are a particularly congested time partially due to the volume of motorists entering and exiting the interstate at Essen Lane.
Rodney Mallet serves as the Communication Director for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). Mallet says, “That part of town has always been congested. However, more businesses have come to the area including medical buildings, hospitals, and retail which has increased the congestion.” Other improvements to ease congestion have been made in the area, but more was needed. Beyond easing congestion, Mallet believes the project will minimize opportunities for crashes and make the area safer.
The project was split into two distinct phases. The first phase, which is budgeted for $2.1 million, was begun in May 2015. It added two additional turn lanes onto I-10 to provide dual left-turns for southbound and northbound Essen Lane. In addition, one lane was added to the I-10 intersection of Essen Lane and Essen Park Avenue, as well as the two on- and off-ramps at I-10. This phase took six months.
A second part of phase one included utility relocations and widening of a bridge (Wards Creek Bridge). The second part was expected to last approximately one-and-a-half years. Mallet says, “Utility movement is always a challenge particularly in this area which is so populated and congested.”
Once the utilities were relocated, phase two began. During this phase, an approximately 1-mile stretch of Essen Lane will be widened from a five-lane roadway with a center turn lane to six lanes with a continuous, two-way center turn lane. This phase began in September 2017 and is expected to be completed by the end of this summer. Part two of phase one and phase two are expected to cost $12 million.
City and State Owners
On the surface, the Essen Lane Widening Project is pretty standard. However, the project is being managed at multiple government levels. DOTD is managing and responsible for part two of phase one and phase two while phase one was spearheaded by the City of Baton Rouge and managed through the City-Parish's Green Light Plan (a comprehensive street and road improvements program authorized by voters in 2005).
This is not the first time the state and local government have worked together in Louisiana. Mallet notes that the two entities have done projects like this before, as several of the projects that the Green Light Plan has managed are connected to state routes. Coordination between the two governments has thrived. “We're fortunate that Baton Rouge works well with the state,” says Mallet.
The reason for the need to coordinate on the Essen Lane Widening project is simple: part of it is city owned, and part of it is state owned. According to Mallet, Baton Rouge via the Green Light Plan had plans to move forward on phase one of the project. When the funds became available for the part of the project that was state owned, “it made sense to do it at the same time.” However, each phase of the project had a completely different group of workers and were essentially two different projects.
According to Mallet, the city's work could be done quickly while the movement of the utilities was a much more time consuming process. “We recognized that the city's work would yield immediate benefits, and therefore, it made sense for them to do complete their phase of the project first.”
The decision to split up the utility work and road work was based on the desire to minimize inconvenience for travelers. DOTD and the Green Light Project have done this in the past. Mallet says, “We find when doing the different aspects of the project separately lessens the inconvenience for people and is the way to go particularly when there is a large amount of utility work to be done as there is in this project.”
Communicating with the Public
The same communication skills that allow the government entities work together are utilized by DOTD when it comes to communicating with the local businesses in the area that are impacted by the construction. Complaints have been minimal, and Mallet notes a few reasons why the surrounding businesses have been satisfied. Prior to beginning the project, DOTD hired an outside company to reach out to every business that would be impacted by the project and obtain their contact information.
Whenever something is coming up that will impact the traffic – lane closure, lane shift, etc., –DOTD emails out a notice. They strive to do this two weeks in advance of the event in order to give businesses time to prepare. Individual commuters can also sign up and get the alerts.
The largest employer in the area is a hospital, Our Lady of the Lake. There are many specialty medical locations in the area that are affiliated with the hospital. Mallet says, “We consider the hospital to be partners in this event, and we get information to them as soon as we can, and they share it with others in their network.” The DOTD goes one step further to keep the hospital in the loop; they have the direct number to the project manager and Mallet and are encouraged to reach out if they have a question or concern.
The Essen Lane Widening project is nearing its completion. While weather is always a factor, particularly in Louisiana, which has felt the wrath of hurricanes, the project is currently on track to be completed by its target date. This can be attributed to the City of Baton Rouge and its local agency and to the DOTD. Their communications and ability to coordinate efforts are showing that governments can indeed work together.
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