Traffic Impact Study improvements back to square one after six months delay

Planning Director Jerome Fournier (l) and ERA Shawn Sherrow attended February Strategic Planning meeting

Ascension’s Planning Director Jerome Fournier appeared before the Council Transportation Committee on Monday to discuss Traffic Impact Studies (TIS) required of every new major subdivision preliminary plat which comes before the parish’s Planning Commission.  Chairman Aaron Lawler noted the common perception that the studies “are not worth the paper they are written on” and Fournier made a second appearance since the item was removed from the Council’s Strategic Planning Committee in April.  On May 8 he accompanied traffic engineer, Laurence Lambert, and Fournier had little to add on Monday when the committee kicked the issue down the road.

Two years, and counting, since scrutiny of TIS began under a different administration and Strategic Planning was chaired by former councilman, Kent Schexnaydre.

Former planning director Ricky Compton drafted an ordinance which was to be discussed by Ascension’s Planning Commission on January 13, 2016 (and again on February 10) that would have fixed the problem, or at least shifted the blame.  Compton wrote of the revisions:

The purpose of these revisions is to change the responsibility of a traffic impact study from the developer to the Parish…These revisions propose to amend the Subdivision Regulations to require a developer to pay the Parish a pre-determined fee, in order to facilitate the Parish hiring a traffic consultant to perform a traffic study for the area in question.  It has been discussed, that if the Parish truly wants to know what the implications are for future development, the the Parish should be paying to get the answers, and not the developers that may or may not be able to steer that traffic consultant towards a desired result.”

Compton deferred discussion of his ordinance to await the Council’s decision on Transportation Impact fees since the subjects are so closely connected.  Impact fees would be enacted by a unanimous council in April of 2016 one month after Strategic Planning recommended a moratorium on all development until a final decision on the fees was reached.  Those impact fees were adopted by the Council in April, by which time President Kenny Matassa had fired Compton, and his proposed TIS improvements went with him.

Compton’s draft ordinance would have tasked Ascension’s “Department of Public Works and/or engineering review agency” with preparing TIS to encompass “the development’s traffic impact on the connecting Parish and/or LADOTD road systems within one (1) mile of the development…The developer/owner shall be required to pay for the cost of (TIS)…and required to comply with the conclusions of the TIS for improvements that offset the adverse impact caused by the additional traffic from the development.”

His successor isn’t buying it.

“We don’t see any advantage to the parish actually contracting (for TIS).  We’re gonna get, basically, the same stuff…as long as they adhere to the policy we develop,” Jerome Fournier told the Transportation Committee.  “Then, I think leaving them as it is will be adequate.”

Councilman Randy Clouatre interjected that “people don’t trust traffic or drainage impact studies…Is there a better way?”

“As I’ve said many times, I’m not a traffic engineer.  I don’t claim to be an engineer at all,” Fournier deferred.

But he knows plenty of engineers.  And Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson does too.

Sitting in for the ever absent President Matassa, Dawson claimed the expertise to “raise those standards” is already under contract with Ascension Parish in the person of Engineering Review Agency (ERA) Shaun Sherrow of CSRS, Inc.  Which is the same thing Fournier and Sherrow told Strategic Planning six months ago during a February 9 meeting.

Chairman Lawler wondered if a specific task order was needed to engage Sherrow’s services since CSRS is already contracted as ERA.  Planning Director Fournier expressed his preference that Ascension’s Planning Commission be given the task instead.  Sherrow is, after all, the ERA who attends every commission monthly meeting.

Fournier went on to claim that Ascension’s TIS standards are more stringent than East Baton Rouge, and similar to Lafayette and St. Tammany parishes.  Chairman Lawler wondered if it might be prudent to extend current TIS’ focus beyond the “first intersection” from any proposed development….maybe like those intersections within a mile of such development?  It had a familiar ring to it.

The Planning Director was more assertive when it came to Transportation Impact Fees, which weren’t on the Transportation agenda and not noticed in accordance with Louisiana Open Meetings Law but…oh, never mind.  Fournier declared:

“We really need to maintain and update the traffic impact fees to the full amounts as recommended by Duncan & Associates…We need to collect enough money in order to do the facilities and make the roads up to date.”

No one bothered to point out that impact fees may only be expended to offset the impact of development, not improve existing infrastructure.  Legal counsel quit attending committee meetings when Councilman Bill Dawson was elected to the Council’s chair in January.

None of which answered Councilman Clouatre’s question, the only that really matters:

Is there a better way?

According to the Vectura Consulting’s Laurence Lambert, who accompanied Fournier to Transportation in May, Ascension’s methodology is standard “across the country,” a statement that seemed to satisfy committee members Teri Casso and Todd Lambert.  Chairman Lawler did scratch the surface three months ago, asking Lambert if a corridor analysis would be an improvement to Ascension’s current methodology.

“That would be broader in my opinion,” responded the Vectura traffic engineer whose grasp of the obvious is beyond dispute.

Don’t expect the value of “worthless” TIS to increase any time soon.