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Buses pull in and out of the CATS (Capital Area Transit System) terminal at 22nd Street and Florida Blvd., Tuesday, May 15, 2018.Tuesday, May 15, 2018.

The much-talked about express bus route to connect north and south Baton Rouge will head into its next stage of development following the Metro Council's approval of a more than $400,000 agreement for engineering and project management services from a national consulting firm.

The council also set a public hearing, following a series of community meetings, on potential amendments to the city-parish's Plan of Government.

The city-parish is sharing half the costs of its $429,000 agreement with HNTB Corporation with The Capital Area Transit System, which will operate the express line called Bus Rapid Transit.

The express bus line is a revamped concept of the controversial downtown-LSU tram touted by then-Mayor-President Kip Holden and scrapped once the current mayor-president, Sharon Weston Broome, took office. 

"That is dead and gone," the city-parish's Transportation Director Fred Raiford said during an interview before Wednesday night's Metro Council meeting. "When the mayor got elected, her desire was to redefine the project from a street car going from LSU to downtown to a more affordable project that covered a greater geographic area in the city."

The approximately 10-mile rapid bus route will run from LSU, travel along Nicholson Drive into downtown, pass down Florida Street, where it'll turn onto North 22nd Street and continue along Plank Road before ending at a planned new transfer station or terminus at Airline Highway near the now-closed Earl K. Long Medical Center. 

The rapid bus line is supposed to differ from what CATS already provides by giving riders shorter wait times between buses along the route, reduce the amount of time it takes riders to get on and off the buses on the specialized route and include electronic systems giving drivers control of traffic signals along the route. 

"It's all about speed," said Bryan Jones, HNTB's associate vice president.      

The rapid bus line is estimated at $40 million while the tram project had a price tag of approximately $170 million. The city-parish is going after federal grant money to cover half of the estimated costs. 

Raiford said he sees the revamped project not only as a way to improve CATS service for households without transportation, a large cluster of which reside along the north end of the line, but also as an economic development tool for the Plank Road corridor, which has been targeted for an ambitious revitalization project spearheaded by Build Baton Rouge, the city-parish's redevelopment authority. 

Improvements along Plank Road, like adding sidewalks and upgrading the thoroughfare's infrastructure, are included in Broome's $1 billion MovEBR roads improvement plan as well.  

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"I'm all about bringing in new business," Raiford said. "I think this will enhance that corridor and economic development will spawn from that."   

According to the agreement, HNTB will serve as the project manager and complete the necessary environmental study for the northern end of the line. The portion between LSU and downtown already received environmental clearance from the Federal Transit Administration when it was targeted for the tram project, Jones said. 

HNTB will also handle all conceptual design and be in charge of hosting public meetings about the project. 

Ridership estimates for the express line were not made available Wednesday. The item was unanimously approved by the Metro Council without discussion or any voiced opinions from audience members during the public hearing Wednesday. 

In a separate item, the Metro Council set a public hearing for Aug. 14 to discuss proposed amendments to the first four chapters of the city-parish's Plan of Government. 

Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who chairs the committee drafting proposed changes to the parish's home rule charter, said Wednesday she intends to introduce the set of recommended changes to the dense document in parts to the Metro Council so the public has time to review it and offer feedback. 

Within the scope of proposed changes are adding at-large seats to the Metro Council, tweaking the timeline of Metro Council's adoption of the city-parish's annual budget so that council members have more time to review it, reducing the term limits for mayor-president to two consecutive terms instead of three, and changing the qualifications for boards and commission appointments.  

The Metro Council must present any recommended changes to the Plan of Government to voters for approval. The committee had hoped to have those changes on the ballot this fall, but that likely won't happen now. 

"This was a grueling task; I had no idea it would take 18 months to get here," Collins-Lewis said. "But we want to get this right and not push anything down anyone's throat."

Collins-Lewis said the Plan of Government committee will host a series of community meetings around the parish during which residents will get the opportunity to review and speak on the proposed changes.

The first meeting is set for 6 p.m. Aug. 1 at BREC headquarters, 6201 Florida Blvd.

"There will be lots of meetings and lots of chances for community input," she said.   


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com