Firm interested in building Baton Rouge ‘inner loop’ toll road to ease traffic _lowres


The first step in whether an $800 million “inner loop” around Baton Rouge is doable is an economic feasibility study expected to be done by October.

The plan, which was submitted by an international engineering firm called AECOM, faces huge financial, technical and political hurdles.

But for now, it is in the hands of the state Department of Transportation and Development, which will find a consultant to review the proposal.

Those results then will be returned to the Louisiana Transportation Authority, which authorized the review.

“And the LTA will then make a decision on whether to take it,” said Cheryl Duvieilh, executive counsel for the DOTD.

The LTA is a little-known, nine-member panel that was enacted in the final hours of the 2001 legislative session.

It was pushed by former Gov. Mike Foster to ignite just these sorts of megaprojects, including toll roads.

Ken Perret, a former top official of the DOTD, said the 23-mile route merits scrutiny.

“It is not an unreasonable proposal,” Perret said. “It is a complicated proposal.”

The idea is called the Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan, or BUMP.

It is supposed to connect interstates 10, 12 and 110, and U.S. 61 and U.S. 190 in a high-speed route around Baton Rouge to ease traffic problems by creating a second path across the Mississippi River.

The key feature would be the creation of a four-lane freeway along a radically redesigned Airline Highway north of I-12 to the U.S. 190 Mississippi River bridge.

Weekday speeds could rise from an average of 13 miles per hour now on Airline to 70 miles per hour on the toll-dependent freeway, according to a summary of the plan.

Airline Highway traffic could rise from 42,000 vehicles per day to 120,000.

Traffic on the old bridge could shoot up from about 30,000 daily to 75,000 and lessen pressure on the often-jammed Interstate 10 Mississippi River bridge.

Like any megaproject, the plan could set off heated squabbling once public input is sought from residents and government officials.

Even the news that AECOM had submitted a proposal, and required $50,000 to have it reviewed, sparked worries from some residents that it was a done deal.

“You can’t have a major project like this without getting the voices of the people who are going to be impacted involved in the process,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge.

Bob Schmidt, an AECOM official and local contact for the project, agreed. “Everybody is going to have a chance to get involved,” he said.

However, financing is a key, early issue because other loop plans in the Baton Rouge area have generated lots of arguments about proposed routes without viable ways to pay for them.

Private/public partnerships — called P3s by insiders — generally mean that a private firm builds the project, then contracts with the state on how to recoup its costs, plus make a profit.

Much of what AECOM has submitted to state officials is confidential. But a summary of the proposal says the firm plans to rely on “established practice” in such projects, including federal loans, bonds and bank loans to come up with a financing plan.

Other public funding “supplements” — presumably state aid — are not anticipated now, according to the summary.

AECOM is a Fortune 500 firm. It claims revenues of $19.5 billion for the year that ended Sept. 30.

AECOM touts what it calls successful private-public partnerships elsewhere, including a $1.3 billion highway in Broward County, Florida, and a $1.4 billion highway plan in Edmonton, Canada.

The firm says plans for Airline Highway are similar to the Dallas North Tollway, a 30-mile route from near downtown Dallas to upscale Frisco, Texas.

While the BUMP has been discussed before, it won new attention last year when the Capitol Region Legislative Delegation said it deserved attention amid worsening traffic problems.

About $1 million was added to the state’s capital improvements budget for initial studies.

Parts of the proposal seemed geared in part to one of the project’s three key hurdles — political support.

Under the plan, the overhaul of Airline Highway would include an Urban Renewal Zone in a corridor north of Florida Boulevard.

The idea is that, with a high-speed freeway zipping through the area, businesses that benefit from traffic count would thrive, including adjacent districts with tax incentives for redevelopment.

“There was a lot of interest from legislators who represent north of Florida,” said state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge and a BUMP backer.

Broome said she already is planning a meeting to consider possibilities on and near the former Earl K. Long Hospital site and is sure transportation plans will be part of the discussion.

Perret said one of the keys to the proposal is political support.

“If it starts getting divisive, that kills everything,” he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.

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