Mayor Sharon Weston Broome, left, and Fred Raiford, right, director of Transportation and Drainage, answer questions from citizens about Broome's Better Transportation and Roads Plan in a meeting at St. Aloysius in September, 2017. The plan called for a 5-mill tax to fund $540 million for the improvements.

Less than a year after the Metro Council refused to put the mayor’s roads tax proposal on a parish-wide ballot, Sharon Weston Broome is returning with a similar project list but plans to raise funds through a sales tax rather than a property tax.

The 2017 proposal – known as the Better Transportation and Roads plan – was an “excellent foundation” to improve roads, Broome said in a Friday interview.

"Traffic congestion, I don't have to tell you, is a really big problem for our drivers. ... It is an issue that has to be addressed, I think our citizens will agree with me," she said.

The mayor wants to put the tax measure before voters in December, which means her staff will have to hustle to meet deadlines to get the item on the ballot.

Some of the big-ticket items in the previous BTR plan included widening and otherwise improving Hooper Road, Wax Road and Lee Drive. Broome’s administration is still discussing which projects will return for the second try, but the mayor anticipates submitting a list that substantially resembles the 2017 proposal.

“It’s going to be the same plan, pretty much, with some modifications,” said transportation and drainage director Fred Raiford.

The biggest difference so far is the funding mechanism. The original BTR plan was to pay for the upgrades with a five-mill property tax. Now, Broome said she is considering a half-cent sales tax. She hopes that will spread the cost out so out-of-parish commuters who shop in Baton Rouge will help defray the cost, rather than putting it all on East Baton Rouge property owners.

A half-cent sales tax applied parishwide would be expected to generate an estimated $46 million a year. That’s the amount that city-parish finance administrators say a half-cent sewer tax is projected to generate this year, including collections in all municipalities and the unincorporated areas. A revenue source like a sales tax can be borrowed against through the issuance of bonds should the city-parish decide to do so to take on large infrastructure projects.   

In addition to widening roads, installing sidewalks and otherwise altering the physical infrastructure, Broome’s previous proposal included money for technological upgrades like traffic signal synchronization.

The administration is now seeking other sources of funding for those technological upgrades. Under a deal the city-parish has struck with the state Department of Transportation and Development, the city-parish will assume responsibility for caring for nearly 100 miles of local roads currently maintained by the state. And, in exchange, DOTD will extend a credit line worth over $70 million to perform road work in East Baton Rouge.

Broome’s staff is asking the Metro Council to amend the road transfer agreement to allow the administration to spend some of the credit on hooking lights up to the computerized traffic signal program with upgraded fiber connections.

Some major thoroughfares like Florida Boulevard and Airline Highway already have synchronized lights, Raiford said. The new proposal would add corridors like Plank Road, Scenic Highway and Greenwell Springs Road, among others. Raiford said the city-parish can’t keep waiting to bring roads across the whole parish into the system.

Metro Council will vote whether to accept the changes during their next meeting on June 27.

Council members were guarded when asked about a new roads tax. Generally, they agreed that Baton Rouge must do something to improve traffic but wanted to see what exactly Broome has in mind. The mayor and her staff said they’re working harder this time around to get everyone on the same page and court council support. Several council members said they began talking to Broome’s staff about a new tax in the past week.

Some council members said they had not yet met with Raiford, while other said they had spoken to him, but only in broad, preliminary terms.

Pro Tem Scott Wilson already has a wish list for his district around Central. It includes widening Wax Road and the Magnolia Bridge as well as Old Hammond Highway east of Sherwood Forest Boulevard. Wilson is typically wary of new taxes and voted against Broome’s previous effort, but indicated that things may be different this time around.

“It’s critical we do something. … We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Buddy Amoroso also voted against Broome’s plan last year. Residents were still feeling the sting of the 2016 flood and had just voted against a similar road improvement plan advanced by outgoing mayor-president Kip Holden, he said. Trae Welch also noted the similarities to Holden’s 2016 proposal, Green Light Plan II.

“How many times do the voters have to say no?” Amoroso asked.

Several council members remarked that the BTR plan seemed to have been rushed and developed without public input. Chauna Banks said a traffic plan must also consider public transportation, but the lack of community involvement was the deciding factor that led her not to support the measure.

“The lack of conversation with voters last time is a model for failure, so we know that’s not the way to move forward this time,” Matt Watson said.

Broome said she was open to holding public meetings but added that it may make more sense to solicit input via online comments and surveys.

If the administration wants residents to inform their designs, they will have to move quickly. The city-parish must advertise any new tax proposition, and a majority of the Metro Council must approve the measure before it can go before voters. If Broome wants the tax on the December 8 ballot, she must submit the council-approved proposition to the Secretary of State by Oct. 15.

“The timeline is really interesting because in order to get on the December ballot something has to happen really fast,” said LaMont Cole.

He wants to see a comprehensive plan for the whole parish, but his mid-city district needs more bike lanes and repairs to roads damaged by debris trucks following the 2016 flood, for a start. Cole wondered how the administration will involve the community with the deadlines looming.

Broome said she was unconcerned what else may be on the December ballot, such as a potential vote on St. George incorporation. Whether voters live in St. George or Scotlandville, everyone cares about traffic mitigation, she said.

Amoroso was not thrilled at the prospect of a December election and said he’d prefer to wait until next November for a major election date. What he’d really like, though, is a regional gas tax that could help fund mega-projects like a new Mississippi River Bridge.

However, council members have found some aspects of the new plan they like. Banks and Barbara Freiberg both said they preferred a sales tax to a millage. Cole, Welch and Erika Green, whose district was thoroughly inundated by the 2016 flood, continued to emphasize that East Baton Rouge also must consider improvements to its drainage infrastructure.

Amoroso, however, is less concerned about drainage this time around now that the city-parish stands to receive federal funding for drainage improvements due to the flood. Broome said that money will allow East Baton Rouge to focus on traffic.

“Drainage is not being ignored,” she said.

Her primary concern is seizing the moment and marshalling voters to her particular plan for combatting traffic.

“Now is the time to move forward,” Broome said.

“We can’t let any grass grow under our feet.”

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.