The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council pledged support Wednesday for a $10 million bond for the envisioned tram linking downtown and LSU as a show of local support in order to secure federal dollars.
Local government would be expected to pony up at least 20 percent of the money for the $170 million tram, and project planners said the city-parish’s willingness to put forth money would be instrumental in gaining federal dollars in return.
Metro Council members debated over how much the project would benefit the city-parish as a whole and whether it is fair to allocate so many dollars to the downtown and LSU areas.
City-parish Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel worried about the tone of the debate about the tram, in which some council members insisted it would not benefit the whole of Baton Rouge.
But Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who represents the district where the sleek tram would run, touted the parishwide benefits the public transportation system could offer. She spoke of the expected jobs the tram’s construction and operations would create and the economic development along the route where the train would run through impoverished Old South Baton Rouge.
“Whatever projects we do in any of our districts has an overall impact on the city as a whole,” Wicker said.
Councilman Joel Boé pointed out that the expected economic development — which project planners have estimated at $1.04 billion by 2041 — would feed into the city-parish tax base and lead to more money to be spread across all districts.
Joe Green, a resident who lives near the tram route, asked the Metro Council to support the project. He said he hopes bike paths are part of it.
The resolution of the council’s support will go into the city-parish’s federal grant applications for the tram. The vote Wednesday is a promise of support from the Metro Council, but they will have to vote again in the future when the city-parish has a contract for the work on the tram.
The funds to repay the $10 million bond are expected to come from extra money generated by an overhaul of the downtown parking system. City-parish leaders expect to raise parking fees and implement better meter management and say the changes should lead to an extra $3 million to $5 million a year.
Also, Daniel said, the city-parish hopes to create an economic development district around the tram, enabling the city-parish to capture property taxes from businesses within those boundaries.
Northbound and southbound tramcars would run along Nicholson Drive, St. Ferdinand Street and North Fourth Street between South Stadium Drive and North Street.
While businesses in the proposed economic development district would probably pay higher property taxes toward the tram, homeowners would not, Daniel said.
Tyronn Thomas, who frequently addresses the council on north Baton Rouge issues, said the city is planning to spend too much money on the tram, which would not solve problems of lack of funding and resources in north Baton Rouge.
“It’s only going to service south Baton Rouge, mainly downtown to LSU,” Thomas said. “What happens to Baton Rouge Community College, Southern University?”
His concerns echoed those of Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel, one of the six council members who recently toured a similar tram in Kansas City, Missouri, on a trip paid for by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
Banks-Daniel said more research should have been done about extending the tram route to north Baton Rouge. Council members Erika Green and LaMont Cole also said they are interested in how the tram could be connected to Southern University and the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport.
“When it comes to economic development, I would just like all projects to be beneficial to north Baton Rouge as well as south Baton Rouge,” Banks-Daniel said.
Some council members also worried about whether the tram and new development could lead to gentrification, with residents of Old South Baton Rouge no longer able to afford their homes. The land use plan with the tram focuses on affordable housing, and Wicker said they want to lock in property tax values for lower income people living there.
Chandler Loupe, John Delgado, Ryan Heck, Trae Welch, Erika Green, Cole, Wicker and Boé all voted in favor of the bond proposal. Banks-Daniel and Buddy Amoroso voted against, with Amoroso saying after the meeting he had concerns about the finances and wanted to ensure the tram is being paid for only by those who lived near it.
Scott Wilson and Donna Collins-Lewis were not at the meeting.
The city-parish already has applied for a $25 million federal grant and their application is due Sept. 2 for an $85 million federal grant.