The Capital Region has long had serious traffic problems, and business leaders have long complained about government’s inability to fix them. A new business-backed coalition is hoping it can help find and implement the solutions before things get too much worse.
“Various groups have been working separately to address the issue, but timely and substantial solutions have not been forthcoming,” says John Pacillo, operations director with Mexichem Fluor and chairman of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance. “It’s time for industry to take a more active role and get more involved.”
GBRIA, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Center for Planning Excellence have assembled a coalition of major employers, including BASF, Cajun Industries, CB&I, Dow, ExxonMobil and Turner Industries, to name only a few. They’re calling themselves Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions, or CRISIS.
“The time was right,” says Hugh Raetzsch Jr., president and CEO of Lyons Specialty Co., “for this group of business leaders to get together and start really looking at and talking about it, and see what kind of influence we can have on the policymakers in Baton Rouge and other areas of the state.”
CRISIS is not pushing for any particular project. Not yet, anyway. The idea is that business leaders will converge around a proposal based on a robust cost-benefit analysis, explains Cordell Haymon, senior vice president with Petroleum Service Corp. and CPEX board chairman.
“CRISIS is responding to the need for a united leadership voice advocating for a comprehensive, regional approach to improving our transportation network that is driven by data—not politics,” Haymon says.
Many recent infrastructure proposals for the Capital Region, from the Loop to the BUMP, are associated with certain politicians or groups but lack broad support. Regardless of the merits, state officials and legislators from outside the region aren’t likely to get behind something when the locals don’t seem to agree amongst themselves.
The hope is that by choosing projects based on the best available data, the Capital Region will get the best possible return on investment from its infrastructure dollars. The state committed more than $400 million to build the John James Audubon Bridge connecting Pointe Coupee and West Feliciana parishes, and leaders in other parishes are still wondering why. Even supporters of the bridge admit that it was built in hopes of spurring economic development, not alleviating traffic, although vehicle counts have fallen short of projections.
Meanwhile, traffic woes complicate economic development in other parishes. Plants in Ascension Parish try to plan around each others’ projects and stagger shifts to avoid perpetual gridlock.
“People who come here and look at either relocating or doing additions or new companies look at quality of life issues,” says Robert Burgess, president and CEO at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales. “You don’t have to look very far to see how traffic backs up.”
The region’s business and population centers are connected by “thin ribbons” consisting of a few highways, he says, and a wreck involving “one trailer truck blocks the world for a week.”
‘THE RIGHT MESSAGE’
A recent study by IBM for East Baton Rouge Parish found that “a siloed approach to data collection is compromising the region’s ability to effectively leverage transportation data.” While plenty of studies have been done over the years, more project prioritization work remains, says Scott Kirkpatrick, the CRISIS coalition’s executive director.
“We’re working with the local and DOTD as they do additional assessments, particularly on the mega-projects around Baton Rouge,” he says. “We’ve got to strike the right message on that.”
Given the state’s perpetual budget crisis, alternative means of financing, including tolls and public-private partnerships, are likely to be part of that conversation. Perhaps the public can be persuaded to support new taxes tied to specific projects if they know the money will be spent as promised, Raetzsch suggests.
CRISIS urged the state’s voters to support constitutional amendments 1 and 2, which sought to devote a portion of oil and gas revenues to transportation projects and authorize investment in a state infrastructure bank, respectively. Voters split on the issue, rejecting the transportation fund but approving investment in an infrastructure bank. The group also has publicly urged political candidates to offer specifics about how to improve transportation in the region and encouraged residents to participate in DOTD’s recent survey about possible improvements to I-10 between the Mississippi River bridge and the 10-12 split.
Coalition members say their message that fixing transportation in the Capital Region should be a state priority seems to be getting through. U.S. Sen. David Vitter has even mentioned the Washington Street interstate exit in radio ads, which is a pretty specific local issue for a gubernatorial candidate.
For the coalition to truly succeed, it will need to do more than rally support around a set of solutions. It will need to help maintain that support through the regulatory and political approval process, then hold the politicians and officials accountable for executing those solutions.