Starting Monday, shoppers in East Baton Rouge Parish will be paying an additional half-cent sales tax on some purchases to bankroll Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's ambitious infrastructure and roads improvement project known as MovEBR.
But it could be fall before drivers start to see signs of their tax money at work actually providing traffic relief.
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The city-parish first has to hire program managers to prioritize the more than 70 projects outlined in the roads improvement plan. And that likely won't occur until the summer, said Kelvin Hill, Broome's assistant chief administrative officer overseeing the city-parish public works departments.
Although that schedule could feel like forever to drivers frustrated by the region's traffic woes, Hill says the city-parish has an aggressive timeline to get the projects moving forward.
"This is moving extremely fast," Hill said. "If you look at other big cities that have done big projects like this, it usually takes them a year or so to get organized."
The 30-year, half-cent sales tax that voters approved in December is expected to generate close to $1 billion over its lifespan. The tax is not applied to the purchase of groceries, prescription medicines or public utilities.
The Metro Council last week introduced an item, set for public hearing April 10, to amend the city-parish's 2019 budget to factor in $35 million of MovEBR tax revenue into its capital improvement spending for the year.
Hill said the appropriation is the revenue they expect to collect between April and December of this year. That money will be used to help pay for the program managers and start some of the projects.
"But we don't know which ones yet," he said.
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The city-parish will borrow money through the issuance of bonds to get the work going so they don't have to wait for sufficient revenue to accumulates to pay for the projects. The bonds will be repaid over time from the sales tax revenue.
Projects are planned across the parish, even though no schedule has not been set yet on the order in which the work will be done or timelines for completion.
One project under MovEBR that drivers might notice early on involves traffic light synchronization to get cars flowing more smoothly through lights. A portion of that work is in planning now to make it easier to keep fire and EMS vehicles moving. The project is budgeted for $1.9 million, but federal funds are covering 80 percent of that cost, said Fred Raiford, the city-parish's director of transportation and drainage.
The work to be done involves upgrading the current system under which fire and EMS vehicles can change lights to green when they get within about 2,000 feet of them, Raiford said.
The existing system supports about 300 traffic signals, while the improved version will cover 443. That will include most of the parish, with some exceptions in the extreme south, such as the Santa Maria area, Raiford said.
“It’s going to be pretty impressive,” the transportation director said.
His staff is meeting with fire and EMS officials to figure out how to st up the system to deal more effectively with especially problematic intersections and choke points. As an example, Raiford noted, it’s often tough to navigate Coursey and Sherwood Forest boulevards.
He said he expects the new software to come online by fall. Firefighters and ambulance drivers may still be able to alert a signal to change from inside their vehicles, but equipping vehicles with GPS systems will also allow dispatchers to plan routes in advance and clear a path when an emergency call comes in.
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Raiford hopes it will reduce the number of times firefighters and paramedics have to cross into oncoming lanes to reach the scene of an emergency.
Police officers and deputy sheriffs don’t generally have the ability to change traffic signals, even when running lights and sirens. Raiford said the city-parish doesn’t intend to change that under the new system.
The lengthy list of planned infrastructure upgrades under the MoveEBR program includes adding turning lanes, shoulders and drainage to Thomas Road between La. 19 and Plank Road, as well as improvements at the Harding Boulevard/Interstate 110 intersection. There are also upgrades planned forScenic Highway between Harding Boulevard and Swan Avenue.
The MovEBR project list also includes widening and adding capacity to Hooper Road, Old Hammond Highway, Perkins Road, Tiger Bend Road and Wax Road/Magnolia Bridge Road. And the plan has numerous locations for new sidewalks, including Drusilla Lane, Elm Grove Garden Drive, Mullen Drive, 72nd Street, Sherwood Forest Boulevard, Siegen Lane and South Harrell's Ferry Road.
Hill said the city-parish in the near future will seek public input on the more than $49 million worth of community enhancement projects, which include a lot of lighting and multi-use paths in various parts of the parish.
"Everyone needs to remember this is a 30-year process; they won't start seeing things done on Day 1," Hill said. "We have to manage our expectations."
The projects being done as part of MovEBR were split into two groupings when the city-parish issued requests in February for qualifications for program managers to oversee the work. One grouping is for $805 million in capital improvements work and the other is for $312.6 million in "community enhancement/corridor improvements."
Local engineering firms CSRS Inc. and Volkert, along with Stantec Consulting Services, an international company with offices in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, submitted their qualifications to the city-parish's engineering selection board for the capital improvements part of the work.
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Stantec Consulting Services and Volkert are also vying to be program managers for the second grouping of projects, along with local firms GoTech and Urban Program Compliance.
Stantec and GoTech were both financial backers of the political action committee that helped Broome champion her MovEBR tax proposal. According to a campaign finance report, Stantec contributed $5,000 and GoTech made a $1,000 donation.
This week, the engineering selection board will rank the firms, with a recommendation on who should serve as program managers on April 11.
The Metro Council will still have to sign off on the contracts after the negotiations between the prospective firms and the city-parish. The entire process will likely be done by June, Hill said.
In addition to prioritizing the slate of projects, the program managers will help with the design, implementation and financial oversight of the work.
"They're kind of like the coach on the football team," Hill said.