Essen lane traffic jam

Traffic backs up on Essen Lane in this Advocate file photo. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome wants a tax to build new roads in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome will ask voters to approve a new 5-mill property tax for road improvements in the fall, but she insists her new initiative is not simply a rehash of the transportation tax that failed at the polls last year.

In a Monday morning press conference, she said her plan, known as the "Better Transportation and Roads" — or BTR — initiative, would fund projects from installing sidewalks to helping widen Interstate 10.

"This is a new proposal. This is not (The Green Light Plan.) … I was not mayor when that Green Light proposal went up before voters," she said, referencing last year's 5-mill property tax that would have funded road work across the parish.

City staff spoke of a desire to reduce traffic not only by expanding its road network, but by using better technology to monitor road conditions and synchronize traffic lights. Transportation and Drainage Director Fred Raiford said he gets calls from motorists who are frustrated not because they're sitting in a car lot on the interstate, but because they're stuck at red lights with no cross traffic.

"I don't know why we didn't do this sooner," he said.

In addition to the 5 mills, the ballot proposal would also rededicate an original half-cent Green Light to pay for beautification projects.

However, the list of projects with cost estimates and timelines has not yet been made public. The administration has asked the Metro Council to introduce the tax Wednesday so they can advertise it to the public and then decide on Sept. 13 whether to put it on the Nov. 18 parish-wide ballot.

Broome said she will provide members the plan specifics before Wednesday's meeting.

Several council members said they might be philosophically supportive of a new measure to improve roads but are getting antsy that they haven't seen the proposal.

"I'm glad it's happening because it's needed … but when people don't have all the information, they don't vote for it," said Councilwoman Tara Wicker.

Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said people keep trying to sell her on the project or talk her into voting against it, but without knowing what it looks like she can't make a decision.

"I'm actually awaiting something … so we can put our eyes on it," she said. "I hope the mayor's forthcoming with that."

Pro Tem Scott Wilson voted against putting roads, mental health and Council on Aging taxes on ballots last year, generally saying his district was still focused on the early months of flood recovery. But this time, he's critical of the administration's roll-out.

"You've got a small window here and you've got a short time to educate people. Right now, we've got an introduction you've got to do and you don't even have a list of projects?" he asked

The Council frequently defers on controversial or complex issues to give more time to ask questions, talk with constituents and consider the matter at hand. But there's a Sept. 25 deadline to file with the Secretary of State to get on the Nov. 18 ballot with no scheduled council meetings before the deadline if they don't decide the matter at the Sept. 13 meeting.

When the last tax proposal went up a year ago, local officials said they didn't want to schedule an election in 2017 because there would be no Congressional races to offset the cost. It is a state election date though, so the parish won't have to cover all the expenses, said acting city-parish Chief Administrative Officer Jim Llorens.

Broome said Baton Rouge's traffic must be addressed sooner rather than later, and with the failure of a state gas tax, it will take "bold action" from locals.

"Transportation is the infrastructure that can either connect or divide a community," she said.

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Councilman Matt Watson said the new initiative would have to be "significantly different" than the one proposed by Mayor Kip Holden for him to feel comfortable putting another roads tax proposal before voters so soon after they rejected the prior one.

Dwight Hudson said he would have to see a "pretty high burden of proof" to go along with a new tax.

"The details of this plan are going to matter a lot to me," he said.

LaMont Cole said he is worried about whether small and minority-owned businesses will be able to successfully bid on contracts since the same big engineering companies usually claim them. Like his colleagues, he also wants to see which neighborhoods will benefit from the upgrades and whether everyone will get a share.

"I have voiced my concerns to the mayor's staff," he said.

Broome also briefly touched on her decision to focus the tax on roads over other issues like drainage. The city-parish is currently asking engineering firms to submit proposals to address drainage, but the funding needs to come from the federal government. As a practical matter, issues like floodplain management don't follow parish lines, so it makes sense to try to work at a regional rather than local level, Llorens added.

Louisiana stands to receive approximately a quarter billion dollars from the federal government for hazard mitigation projects as a result of last year's flood. Officials are looking to dip into that pot for its drainage work.

The parish government does have to pay in a 25 percent match for that type of work. East Baton Rouge may have to move some money around but should be able to hold up its end, Raiford said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.