City-parish leaders have signed off on a $71.5 million road deal with the state, and commuters who travel between LSU and downtown Baton Rouge on Nicholson Drive will be the biggest beneficiaries.
For the past year, locals and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development have been hammering out a deal wherein the city-parish would take over the maintenance of nearly 100 miles of state roads in exchange for credit that can be cashed in for infrastructure projects.
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The Metro Council on Wednesday signed off on the transfer, which lays out the city-parish's prioritized wish list for the $71.5 million in state credits.
There are eight local projects, and the top four are all located on the Nicholson Drive corridor. The top priority is repairing the roads around the future Water Campus — Terrace, Oklahoma, Gila, Aztec and Emma streets.
The second objective is to widen Nicholson itself between Interstate 10 and the north gate of LSU. After that, money will go toward providing matching funds for grants to build the proposed downtown-LSU tram, which is planned to run along Nicholson. The fourth goal is to extend Staring Lane so it intersects with Nicholson near L'Auberge Casino.
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Steve Bonnette, the parish's transportation director, hopes to begin fixing the roads near the Water Campus in the fall. The 35-acre research facility is under construction with plans to begin opening some offices next summer.
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It remains unclear how far the parish will be able to stretch its DOTD credit line. If the city can't find federal grants or other sources of funding, the $71.5 million may be able to pay for only four or five projects, Bonnette said. William Daniel, the mayor's chief administrative officer, was confident the credit will be able to help pay for other projects lower on the priority list.
Any money left over after Nicholson's various improvements will go toward improving arterial roads such as Airline Highway, Lobdell Boulevard and Greenwell Springs Road north of their intersections with Florida Boulevard, and performing work on other north Baton Rouge thoroughfares such as Plank Road. Afterward, the credit will fund construction of an Interstate 10 interchange at Pecue Lane, and whatever is left will be handed over to the parish's Green Light Plan.
The parish didn't set out to focus so much attention on Nicholson, Bonnette said. Developments, including the Water Campus, have just spurred the need for better infrastructure and those projects have reached the fundraising stage.
No one from the public or the Metro Council debated the transfer agreement when it was approved at the most recent council meeting, and various officials have remarked that the priority list can be altered if other needs arise.
And it could be awhile before the state has the money to begin thinking about lower-level priorities. DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said the parish and state need to sit down to hash out specific plans for the road work; neither a timeline nor specific project costs have been determined.
Bonnette hopes to begin fixing the roads around the Water Campus in the next few months, but he isn't sure how soon the parish will be able to redeem all $71.5 million in credit.
"This doesn't immediately solve any issues," Daniel cautioned after the Metro Council signed off on the agreement.
The city-parish will have to wait until DOTD gets money from the state which can be used to pay for work on Baton Rouge roads, he continued.
Other parishes are also signing road transfer agreements and will be earning credit, Bonnette noted, though East Baton Rouge's plan is substantially larger than elsewhere in the state.
DOTD will also be tied up fixing all the roads it is transferring to local governments. Before a road can be turned over, the state must make sure it is in good condition. Government Street east of Interstate 110 was resurfaced earlier this year to prepare it to be given to the city-parish under an older, smaller transfer agreement.
The roads to be transferred in the latest deal include all or portions of Perkins Road, Bluebonnet Boulevard, Siegen Lane, Highland Road, Nicholson Drive, Jefferson Highway and Old Hammond Highway.