A team of consultants arrived in Baton Rouge on Saturday, and like thousands of other visitors, it headed to Tiger Stadium for some LSU football. But its interest wasn’t so much what happened on the field, it’s what happened after the game ended — traffic.
The experts come from IBM and are visiting the capital city for three weeks to study the area’s transportation issues and ultimately recommend sweeping solutions that could shape future infrastructure plans for the city.
On Monday morning, the six IBM executives, two of whom are from Mexico and Ireland, had their first meeting with about 30 of Baton Rouge’s transportation, infrastructure and planning leaders.
Baton Rouge was selected earlier this year as one of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge grant recipients. The selected cities get the pro bono benefit of IBM’s top-tier consultants studying local issues and providing recommendations that would otherwise cost about $500,000 in expertise.
City leaders applying for the grant asked for help in the area of transportation. Baton Rouge is consistently ranked as one of the most congested midsized cities in the nation.
Baton Rouge was one of 16 cities worldwide and only four in the U.S. selected in the competitive grant process this year.
Mayor-President Kip Holden welcomed the experts at a meet-and-greet on Monday. He said the recommendations are vital because traffic is a top complaint among residents and because the growing population has been putting increased pressure on the roads.
“They could really have tremendous input in shaping the future of Baton Rouge and shaping this mess out there that we call traffic,” Holden said. “Having better roads to move around on will make this region a lot more attractive to companies coming to locate here.”
During the next three weeks, the consultants will gather data and meet with government officials, residents, businesses and nonprofits about traffic problems and plans.
On Oct. 17, they will present a summary of their findings and recommendations at a public meeting.
Steven Pearson, IBM manager of corporate citizenship and affairs, said the recommendations will be “actionable,” detailed and address specific issues. The recommendations could include potential funding options for infrastructure improvements.
Holden has made a variety of traffic and infrastructure projects the keystone of his mayoral terms, including the sales tax-funded Green Light Plan, a parishwide road improvement project, and a handful of large-scale projects still in their infancy, like the Baton Rouge Loop, the widening of Government Street and plans to put a trolley on Nicholson Drive to connect LSU to downtown.
Holden said recommendations made by the IBM consultants could lead to expanding the Green Light Plan.
The IBM Smarter Cities Challenge program has reached more than 100 cities in the past three years, investing more than $50 million. The consultants have worked with other cities on issues like clean water, healthy food, economic development and public safety.
Durham, North Carolina, was selected as a Smarter Cities Challenge recipient in 2012 and consultants worked with city officials on educational achievement and the school dropout problem. Pearson said about 440 students every year were dropping out of a school system of about 100,000 children.
The team ultimately helped Durham develop positions, identify resources and create programs geared toward reaching at-risk youths. The plan also had recommendations about potential funding sources that included grant opportunities and carving out existing city funds.
Holden noted that funding is always an issue with infrastructure projects. But he said having a well-developed set of recommendations behind them could provide momentum for funding because the community will be behind them.
He said traffic is an issue so important to Baton Rouge that residents were willing to tax themselves when they voted to extend a pothole tax in 2005 to support the Green Light Plan.
Bob Mirabito, CEO of the Capital Area Transit System, was among the transportation leaders invited to meet Monday with the IBM consultants.
He said the agency has a vested interest in seeing traffic reduced, because congested streets slow its buses and affect its schedules.
Mirabito said this is the first time he’s seen so many local transit leaders together in one room.
“If it took IBM to bring us all together, more power to them,” he said.
The grant is unrelated to the IBM Software Center being built in downtown Baton Rouge, Holden has previously said. IBM already has more than 100 employees working on its software project at a temporary location in the Essen Centre office building while its new office in downtown Baton Rouge is under construction.