City Hall on Thursday laid out an ambitious plan to tackle Baton Rouge’s perpetual traffic woes, suggesting $1 billion worth of improvements for federal highways, city streets and some country roads.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome wants proceeds from a 30-year half-cent sales tax increase to improve roads and sidewalks throughout East Baton Rouge Parish. High-priced projects would improve much of Airline Highway, widen roads in and around Central and build a new Interstate 10 interchange with a four-lane Pecue Lane.
The $912 million Broome seeks is double what she sought in a failed roads tax plan last year. It includes $40 million to synchronize traffic lights and manage traffic flow.
In all, 40 projects would widen and build new roads, 12 would make roads easier to access and navigate and 12 would install or improve sidewalks and subsurface drainage.
Airline Highway improvements — from I-110 to Florida Boulevard and from Bluebonnet Boulevard to the Ascension Parish line — total $95 million and touch most of the city’s 12 council districts. Many of the city’s other traditional bottlenecks are also on the list.
Fred Raiford, the city-parish’s director of transportation and drainage, said Baton Rouge could not wait for the state or anyone else to improve its roads.
“If you want to get this project done, you better step up the plate and make it happen,” he said.
If the East Baton Rouge Metro Council agrees, voters could consider the tax proposal Dec. 8.
A household making $75,000 a year could expect to pay an extra $46.52 more a year in sales taxes _ or less than a dollar a week. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the president of Louisiana Associated General Contractors were quick to lend their support Thursday.
Ken Naquin, CEO of Louisiana Associated General Contractors, said he had not seen the proposed project list but noted that anyone could throw a dart at a map of Baton Rouge and have it land on a road that needs to be widened.
The new plan nearly doubles the number of increased-capacity projects the city-parish proposed in its 2017 Better Transportation and Roads property tax bid. Among the new ideas are four-laning Pecue Lane and building an I-10 interchange, improving Airline Highway and four-laning most of Nicholson Drive between LSU and the Iberville Parish line.
Repeat proposals from 2017 include widening and adding capacity to Hooper Road, Old Hammond Highway, Perkins Road, Tiger Bend Road and Wax Road/Magnolia Bridge Road. Nearly all of the sidewalk additions proposed in 2017 have also returned in the new tax plan, as well, including along Drusilla Lane, Elm Grove Garden Drive, Mullen Drive, 72nd Street, Sherwood Forest Boulevard, Siegen Lane and South Harrell’s Ferry Road.
Not all projects would be funded entirely by the sales tax increase. The city-parish will look for outside funding sources for a handful of the projects, which is why the $1 billion estimated cost surpasses the $912 million the tax is expected to generate.
Broome’s previous roads tax proposal failed last September when the Metro Council refused to put it before voters.
This time around, three of five council members reached Thursday were cool to the idea.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker worried that a sales tax will disproportionately target low-income families and said she needs to study the plan more deeply. Councilman Matt Watson said that, as a professional in the construction industry, he thinks the price tags on specific projects are inflated to a great degree. Councilman Buddy Amoroso hadn’t made up his mind _ he likes the plan to widen roads like Old Hammond Highway _ but he fears the tax might undercut the public’s willingness to support a new bridge over the Mississippi River.
Councilwoman Chauna Banks said she was “extremely ecstatic” about the proposal, and Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg added, “we’ve got to do something as a community to improve traffic.”
While residents may be loath to pay a new tax, sitting in traffic could be worse, Naquin said. The city is “strangled by traffic,” which hurts the economy and general quality of life, he said. It’s possible that Baton Rouge traffic cannot be fixed, but only improved, he said.
Wicker, who represents downtown and Old South Baton Rouge, doesn’t have a lot of traffic-relieving projects in her district but said that even sidewalks and other quality of life improvements would have a big impact on her constituents.
The half-cent sales tax might not be the only tax increase proposal on the December ballot. The non-profit Bridge Center, championed by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, is seeking a 1.5-mill property tax to build a facility to house mentally ill people contacted by police officers who need psychiatric help, not jail time.
Multiple tax proposals may be “troubling” to voters, but Raiford said the roads plan is solid. He said he can’t go to the grocery store without getting stopped by a bunch of neighbors demanding he fix their commute. Raiford believes the project list addresses their concerns.
The plan looks at thoroughfares throughout the parish, Raiford said. Airline Highway, Nicholson Drive, Sherwood Forest Boulevard and South Choctaw Drive are all big-ticket items slated for improvement, he pointed out.
Watson, the councilman, said he trusts Raiford but worries the city-parish may pay too much for some projects, such as the $2 million turning lane extension along Jefferson Highway at Bluebonnet Boulevard in his district.
Raiford said he expects to hold multiple public meetings over the next couple months to answer voters’ questions about the road projects and the tax proposal. The projects list could change depending on feedback from voters, he said.
In addition to physical improvements, the tax would pay for most of a plan to synchronize traffic lights parish-wide. The city-parish has asked the state to fund some work on specific roads but plans to pay for most of the work through the proposed tax.
Metro Council members are expected to vote August 8 on whether to place the tax on the Dec. 8 ballot.