Decades of explosive expansion far outpaced the capacity of arterial roads around East Baton Rouge Parish (county) in Louisiana. As traffic conditions deteriorated, solutions remained mired in a system that took five to six years to get a project built.
Then came a new administration and a plan to end the gridlock. In 2004, Melvin “Kip” Holden centered his campaign for city-parish mayor-president on supporting growth as well as current need.
“We were working on short- and long-term solutions when our traffic problems were made even worse by an increased population following Hurricane Katrina,” he says. “The need to fast-track these projects became even more critical.”
Upon his election, Holden's administration and the city-parish department of public works began developing the “Green Light Plan.” The initiative finances 50 miles of road expansions, nine intersection upgrades, a new interchange, 26 new bridges, and a large-scale traffic light synchronization project in downtown Baton Rouge.
A thruway between the cities of Central and Baton Rouge is one of 21 projects launched in the two years since construction began under the plan. Eight projects are completed. So far, the program has saved more than $22 million and created hundreds of jobs. All projects are resident-approved.
LOCKING IN PUBLIC COMMITMENT
The first step was to tap a “pay-as-you-go” sales and use tax that parish voters had already renewed twice.
“We felt the most effective way to get projects done in a shorter period of time would be to extend the life of the tax from five years to 25 years, and then go out and finance the revenue stream,” says Walter Monsour, former city-parish chief administrative officer. “We asked citizens if they were comfortable dedicating this same tax to the repair, rehabilitation, and expansion of our traffic program. Once they said yes, we would give them a list of projects we would commit to doing over a five-year span.”
Given the post-Katrina environment in Louisiana, the mayor was determined to make sure citizens understood how urgent the need was. Before final approval by the voters, he convened nearly 40 meetings to propose projects, receive public input, and sell the final proposition.
A strong history of support for the sales and use tax, coupled with conservative projections in sales tax growth, led to a favorable reception by all three rating agencies and municipal bond insurers. That prompted parish leaders to propose using bond proceeds to help fund nearly 40 projects. For example, the city-parish recently sold $110 million in Triple-A-rated, 20-year bonds at 5% interest.