Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has gotten notable buy-in for her proposed MovEBR road tax from business leaders and elected officials parishwide. But is their support and the public's frustration with traffic pileups enough to get voters to support her $912 million tax proposal appearing on the Dec. 8 ballot?
At least one pollster thinks the mayor has a challenge to sell this tax, but Broome remains optimistic.
"We've been working tirelessly to get this message out to the people about the shared impact this will have," she said.
Early voting for the Dec. 8 ballot continues this week through Saturday.
Claiming there's no way for the city-parish scrape together money out of the existing budget to pay for the widespread road improvements it'll take to get traffic flowing properly, Broome said her 30-year, half-cent sales tax is the only option left to do the work that should have been done decades ago.
This is her second attempt to pass a roads tax. A previous effort stalled out when the Metro Council refused to put a property millage on a ballot.
The more than 70 projects outlined in the MovEBR proposal are supposed to address commuters' safety, road capacity, and mobility concerns that continue to inflame the region's traffic issues — much like Baton Rouge's last successful sales tax proposal for road improvements, the Green Light Plan.
The Green Light tax, set to expire in 2030, was approved by voters under the administration of then mayor-president Kip Holden and was used to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in projects that included the creation of the Central Thruway and the Staring Lane extension.
East Baton Rouge Parish has invested more than $700 million into construction projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion and improving conn…
John Couvillon, president of JMC Analytics and Polling, thinks Broome has to prove to voters why her tax is needed since the public may feel the revenue from the Green Light Plan should have been sufficient to address the parish's infrastructure needs.
"I'm seeing some new projects on the list, but there are some that seem to be carry over from the Green Light Program," Couvillon said. "We need to know what is needed in MovEBR that wasn't provided in the Green Light program."
Director of Transportation and Drainage Fred Raiford said three roads — Picardy-Perkins connector, Pecue Lane interchange improvement and McHugh Road — that were apart of the Green Light Plan rolled over onto the project list for MovEBR because they were not completed.
Those projects and the funding from the Green Light program are included in the total cost of MovEBR, Raiford said.
The Green Light Plan had a pay-as-you-go funding mechanism which only allowed the city-parish to complete a certain number of projects each year after enough revenue from the tax had built up year-to-year, Raiford said.
“There’s not enough money there to do the remaining projects right now or use those funds to do the projects on the MovEBR list,” he said.
Couvillon, meanwhile, thinks the timing of the MovEBR tax proposal isn't ideal.
The Dec. 8 ballot includes a proposed 1.5-mill property tax to fund construction of a center to treat the mentally-ill in the parish, and Couvillon notes that residents will be receiving their annual property tax bills around the same time they head to the polls.
"You're asking people to support two additional taxes when they're receiving their property tax bills? That's gonna be a challenge," he said.
And because a number of tax proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot went down in defeat, Couvillon said, it'll take the bipartisan support Holden was able to get for the Green Light Plan in 2005 and backing from influential interest groups for Broome to shore up the number of "yes" votes she needs to pass the MovEBR tax.
Broome's plan has picked endorsements from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions, Baton Rouge Health District, Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance and the mayors of Baker, Central and Zachary.
A political action committee called Move EBR Inc. has financed a campaign in support of the proposal. According to a campaign finance report filed Nov. 8, the PAC has received more than $369,000 in contributions.
Many of the PAC's financial backers are engineering, architectural and construction firms that could stand to gain financially if the MovEBR projects get underway. But others just want to see a traffic solution.
"I don't do (road) construction so for me, this is about improving transportation," said David Roberts, CEO of Excel Group, a nationwide company that offers a range of services from pipe manufacturing, engineering and industrial construction.
"I just have a lot of employees who can barely get around town in reasonable amounts of time," said Roberts, one of the PAC's top five contributors. "Some of us business leaders decided it was time to get behind the parish to improve these roads. We can't sit around and do nothing anymore."
Jim Bernhard, the founder of The Shaw Group who now heads a private equity firm, says a great city requires good infrastructure. And if there were a way to improve the roads in the parish without raising taxes, then someone would have come up with a plan by now, he added.
"If you have an automobile, it’s an easy vote," said Bernhard, who forked over $37,500 to the PAC's efforts. "It's miserable jumping in your car to get around town these days. No one wants to pay more taxes, especially me. But there's no other legitimate answer to get the money we need to fix our roads."
Metro Councilman Dwight Hudson disagrees.
Hudson is one of two council members who voted against putting the measure on the ballot. Although he thinks it's a good plan, he believes the city-parish should rededicate some of the revenue that funnels into its special revenue funds from existing taxes first to address infrastructure needs before asking voters to approve another new tax.
"We haven't done enough with the money the taxpayers have already given us," Hudson said.
Among Broome's selling points to voters is that the half-cent tax won't be applied to the sales of groceries, prescription drugs or utilities. The mayor has frequently called the tax proposal "more equitable," claiming 21 percent of the people who will pay it live outside the parish.
She said the proposition includes language making it illegal for any revenues from the sales tax to be used for anything else besides the projects on her existing list.
Big-ticket items in north Baton Rouge include additions of turn lanes, shoulders and drainage along Thomas Road between La. 19 and Plank Road.
Improvements at the Harding Boulevard/Interstate 110 intersection, and upgrades on Scenic Highway between Harding Boulevard and Swan Avenue are also slated.
Money from the tax would also go toward widening and adding capacity to Hooper Road, Old Hammond Highway, Perkins Road, Tiger Bend Road and Wax Road/Magnolia Bridge Road. And the plan includes numerous locations to build sidewalks, including Drusilla Lane, Elm Grove Garden Drive, Mullen Drive, 72nd Street, Sherwood Forest Boulevard, Siegen Lane and South Harrell's Ferry Road.
The city-parish also would spend $40 million of the tax proceeds for traffic light synchronization and an advanced traffic management center. And there are proposed improvements to Airline Highway all the way from I-110 to Florida Boulevard, and again from Bluebonnet Boulevard to the Ascension Parish line.
"This is going to be a major game changer in transforming the current infrastructure," Broome said. "If we want to have a progressive city, I really want residents to go back to the polls to voice their support."