Is the Baton Rouge metropolitan area going to choke on its growth?
That may put the problem in too strong terms, but clearly a lot of growth — physical construction and sprawl, as well as population growth — is a 2016 challenge for the region.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber polled its members and opinion leaders about challenges facing the region and for the first time since 2013, it was transportation that was ahead of all others, including workforce preparation.
Long commutes and traffic snarls are part of the day-to-day life in a growing region but one that is hardly so populous to be tied up the way it is: National surveys continue to point to Baton Rouge as a place that has more traffic problems than other cities its size.
Overall, of course, BRAC had a lot of good news for the region in its annual forecast.
Job numbers in the region are at a high, over 400,000, and growth in employment has exceeded expectations of econometric forecasters for the past two years.
“Seeing consecutive years of above 3 percent (job growth) is incredibly good,” BRAC President Adam Knapp told a City Club briefing on the new numbers. Detailed data is available at BRAC.org.
While low oil prices, and a consequent crash in drilling and exploration, are a serious concern for the state, the nine-parish Baton Rouge area has seemingly dodged that bullet, at least for now. And low natural gas prices mean that big-ticket petrochemical construction still is likely in both the Baton Rouge area and in the Lake Charles area, the state’s second big concentration of refineries.
Obviously, though, because of the impact of the oil slump on state revenue, as well as many parishes where exploration and services are centered, the state’s overall economic prospects are limited. State government has curtailed its pro-growth investments in universities and other vital institutions for the past seven years.
Nevertheless, Knapp said that Baton Rouge should see more growth in 2016 and household income is up in the region. “One of the great stories is not that we’re seeing job growth but it is translating into earnings for households,” Knapp said.
But it is the cars and trucks using the area’s gasoline that is a challenge, as the region might well suffer penalties from tightening federal anti-pollution standards — not to mention the frustration of thousands of motorists stuck in traffic snarls.
The chamber has worked aggressively with major industrial employers in the CRISIS coalition that is pushing for significant new spending on transportation in the region. However, major construction projects take time and cost a great deal of money; there are no quick fixes when it comes to highways, bridges, rail lines and buses.
“It is going to hamper what is possible for us in the future if it is not addressed,” Knapp said. That might be a significant mitigating factor in an otherwise strongly upbeat report for 2016.