On November 6, East Baton Rouge Director of Transportation Fred Raiford spoke to over 100 business owners and BRAC investors about the MovEBR program. MovEBR is a half-cent sales tax that represents about $900 million in infrastructure investment, primarily in increased capacity, with projects all over East Baton Rouge that will cut about 4.5 million hours of congestion every year. By now, most attendees walked into the room familiar with the basics of the program, whether through news coverage, public meetings, or watercooler talk. Those of us who live and work in the Capital Region discuss traffic like most people discuss weather and can recite the area’s unfortunate traffic statistics from memory the same way we casually rattle off the final score of every LSU Tigers SEC football championship win.
So instead, the people who went to last week’s lunch were looking to ask questions. Questions that went beyond “what will this do, and what does it cost?” but are just as important. Below are some of those important questions and their answers:
Why are we spending local dollars on state highways?
Improvements to vital routes like Highway 30 and Airline have been sitting on the books for years with no movement. The realities of funding at the state level – where we have a backlog of more than $13 billion worth of projects – means that we can’t depend on the state coming in and addressing these problems. If we want something done, we just have to do it ourselves.
After all, the average driver doesn’t know or care whether a road problem is state or local jurisdiction. They just know it’s a problem that needs to be fixed, and the MovEBR plan is a practical response to that.
Why do this before a new bridge?
If most people were to pick a single project as the region’s signature need, a new bridge would undoubtably be at the top of the list. In fact, BRAC, CRISIS, and other groups supported Senator Rick Ward’s legislation just this year to create a new bridge district dedicated to moving that project forward. However, a new bridge will take many years to plan and is only one of many, many needs. It will not fix traffic on its own and will need a number of other improvements in the region – including connector highways – to be effective.
MovEBR improves major arterials and surface streets that need to be addressed regardless of when a new bridge is built, and also includes connector pieces like Highway 30 that will be required for the new bridge to function most effectively. To solve our traffic woes, the Capital Region can’t pick between improving surface streets or building a new bridge: we need to do both.
What are “enhancements,” and why are they in the plan?
Improving mobility in East Baton Rouge will take a multi-pronged approach. The vast majority of the MovEBR budget is rightly dedicated to straightforward capacity improvement. But we also need to make sure we’re squeezing every drop of capacity out of our existing roadways, so the MovEBR plan includes some money for improved light signalization and synchronization. Having the ability to actively manage lights is particularly important in the case of natural disasters, car wrecks, or other incidents in which normal traffic flows must be rerouted along other routes. Improvements here are desperately needed, and not including dollars for this would have been a big mistake.
We also need to provide more and better transportation options to help take some cars off the road to begin with. There is a small amount of money programmed into the plan that will create additional bike paths and sidewalks, creating improved mobility for those who walk or ride bikes. Having safe and reliable non-auto transportation is particularly important for children and the elderly, and is a major attraction for young talent who are actively looking for cities that offer more transportation choices.
These sidewalks also include subsurface drainage improvements, and any major infrastructure campaign post-2016 that didn’t address flood concerns to some extent would be irresponsible.Perhaps most important, however, is the question that didn’t get brought up: “How did things get this bad?” Because the fact is, we know. Decades of under-investment at every level has led to the predictable result of an inadequate and rapidly deteriorating infrastructure system that lowers our quality of life and hinders our economic growth. We know how we got here. We also know what we have to do to improve. Voting yes on December 8 is a major step in that direction.
Anderson serves as BRAC’s Director of Governmental Affairs and Special Projects, responsible for the organization’s governmental relations and advocacy efforts and managing other projects related to economic competitiveness and quality of life.