If you’re looking for transformational changes to Baton Rouge’s transportation infrastructure in 2019, you’ll likely be disappointed. Despite a series of positive measures in 2018 to address the Capital Region’s chronic gridlock, it’s going to take more than mere months to correct problems that have been decades in the making.
That said, 2019 will be a significant year in Baton Rouge’s ongoing efforts to get serious about fixing the traffic woes that snarl surface streets and tie up highways while stymying economic development.
For starters, there’s MovEBR, Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s half-cent sales tax that voters approved in December to fund nearly $1 billion worth of expansions and improvements to surface streets throughout the parish. Don’t expect a lot of construction to begin this year, but the pieces to enable the work to start will be put into place.
By April, the bonds that will pay for the first $111 million worth of projects will be issued. Once that money is available, the city will initiate the procurement process, get approval from the Metro Council for the various jobs and run it all through the parish purchasing department. Look for those initial projects to focus on the widening of Hooper Road and Old Hammond Highway, and the construction of the Picardy-Perkins connector.
As part of MovEBR, the parish will also begin working on acquiring new software for signal light synchronization—something that can be done relatively quickly and produce results that motorists will notice almost immediately.
“By midsummer you could see new ‘smart’ signal lights up and running,” Director of Transportation and Drainage Fred Raiford says.
There’s also the proposed widening of Interstate 10. As early as February, consultants working on the environmental assessment phase of the proposed project will present their draft report to the public and the state. This report will contain all the details people have been waiting to see—like how engineers plans to dismantle the entire elevated portion of I-10 over the City Park Lakes and what they plan to do with merchants and restaurants that operate in the literal shadows of the interstate near the Perkins Road overpass.
Though the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on those plans, their comments will not change the recommendations. Rather, they’ll be added to the back of the report for potential consideration by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will likely get a final copy of the report by the end of the first quarter.
If the plan is approved, the state could move to the next phase of the project by midsummer. This involves securing funding for the project. Already, the state has identified where that funding will come from—GARVEE bonds—so money should be available relatively quickly.
However, the first batch of GARVEE funds also will go to highway projects in Shreveport and New Orleans that are farther along in the planning process, so it’s not clear how much will come to the Capital Region in 2019. Whatever does come this way will likely be used for prep work—utility relocation and right-of-way acquisition—to prepare for construction work that would begin in 2020.
Also this year, you’ll hear more talk about the new bridge across the Mississippi River and a new five-parish regional taxing authority that is trying to get organized about seeing how to make it happen. But whatever elected officials or big-name business leaders promise, don’t expect much movement on the long-awaited south span.
There are still five locations under consideration by the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which moves at the speed of molasses on a good day, and no agreement yet on which of those sites is optimal.
Even assuming one is selected in 2019, there’s a lot of land the state would need to acquire to connect the bridge to the interstate on both sides of the river. Similarly, even if a funding source for a new bridge is identified through a public private partnership—say, businessman Jim Bernhard’s private equity firm, BCP, agrees to front the money and be reimbursed by tolls—the state would have to fund construction on the connector roads and there’s no money in place to make that happen.
What there is, however, is a greater emphasis in early 2019 on the myriad transportation infrastructure issues than in the past, and an effort to coordinate them. it’s a promising sign that the new year will bring badly needed change.
Will the Spain train ever roll?
Although talk of the proposed Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans passenger rail will likely ramp up again in 2019, don’t read much into it. The passenger rail, spearheaded by BRAF’s John Spain, will remain a far-fetched fantasy this year, just as it has for the past decade. The $300 million project lacks funding, and even if the state manages to scrounge up dollars to secure a federal grant, it still has to get Kansas City Southern to agree to allow the train to pass on its rail line. And, by the way, KCS is not very fond of the idea.