Concerns about flooding in Baton Rouge have prompted the city-parish to move forward with creating a "stormwater master plan" expected to outline a list of projects to address drainage.
Engineering firm HNTB has been selected to develop the plan, chosen this week from a group of applicants who responded to requests for qualifications from the city-parish. The projects they come up with are expected to help prevent day-to-day flash floods during heavy rainstorms, along with preventing floods during 50-year and 100-year flood events, according to city-parish Director of Transportation and Drainage Fred Raiford.
But should Baton Rouge experience another 500-year flood — a term some have used to describe the waters that inundated the parish last year — even a new stormwater system might not be able to keep everyone dry, Raiford said. Designing that kind of system would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.
"We are going to look at it from a technical, normal rain events, 50-year events and 100-year event," Raiford said.
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His office will spend the next few weeks outlining a scope of services for HNTB to work on and then determining how much their work would cost. They will then bring a contract to the East Baton Rouge Metro Council to approve HNTB's work on the master plan.
The stormwater master plan will look ahead 20 years, and it will also look farther than just Baton Rouge's boundaries, said Bryan Jones with HNTB's Gulf Coast office.
"Water has no respect for political boundaries," Jones said. "Given the massive size of the Amite and Comite River watersheds, and complex interactions between these watersheds and network of bayous, including Bayou Manchac, it will be critical to assess proposed projects and potential solutions at a regional level, both upstream and downstream."
Raiford said he was particularly impressed with HNTB's discussion of identifying funding sources to pay for drainage infrastructure, which can get expensive. Raiford said he's interested in tapping into more than $100 million in federal money designated for hazard mitigation to pay for some of the projects.
In addition to hazard mitigation grants, Jones said HNTB will look into resiliency grants, disaster recovery grants and money available through the Water Resources Development Act. Local funding and financing will also be on the table.
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HNTB is the same firm that has worked with the city-parish on a proposal to develop a tram that would run between LSU and downtown along the Nicholson corridor. The tram project has recently stalled.
Raiford said he was impressed with all of the top three applicants for stormwater improvements. The other two were Sigma Engineering and Arcadis.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced in July that she would start seeking help to create the stormwater master plan, saying then that the 2016 floods exposed serious flaws in the parish's drainage system.
The stormwater master plan will be the first of its kind done looking at the entire parish, Raiford said. The idea that Baton Rouge needs drainage improvements is not a new one, though. And interest in it may be at a peak, as Broome was swarmed with questions about stormwater drainage at a lunch with engineers in late May.
Former Mayor-President Kip Holden twice tried to pass taxes in 2008 and 2009 that would have bundled drainage projects with other infrastructure improvements and attractions, such as riverfront developments. Both were combinations of a 9.9 mill property tax and a half-cent sales tax.
The 2008 and 2009 proposals were combinations of drainage system improvements, a new parish prison, traffic light synchronization, river front developments and more. Voters rejected both of them.
In 2011, Holden again called for a tax proposal that included $195 million for 40 miles of drainage work. The package also included a new prison, bridge replacements and Baton Rouge River Center Improvements. The Metro Council nixed the proposal before it ever made it onto ballots.
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This time, Metro Council members have already begun asking Broome about her plans for drainage. As Broome moves forward with a transportation tax that she is hoping to place on Nov. ballots, council members have recently expressed concerns over the focus on roads. Several have said that since the August 2016 floods, drainage is what their constituents are asking about.
"I hear over and over again and you do, too, about drainage," said Metro Councilman Trae Welch to Raiford and Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Rowdy Gaudet at an Aug. 23 meeting. "How do we go on September and ask for a plan and then possibly come back a year from now and ask for drainage?"
Gaudet said then that Broome was "laser focused on both issues" and that the stormwater master plan would soon return to the Metro Council.