Faced with a burgeoning backlog of road improvement projects, East Baton Rouge Parish (county), Louisiana, needed to make some tough choices. Which projects would deliver the most benefit for the available funds?

To help answer that question, Mayor Melvin "Kip" Holden invited local, regional, and nationwide traffic transportation and engineering firms to participate in a two-day summit. The mayor's office worked with key department of public works officials to coordinate the event. Held in February 2005, the summit included approximately 40 representatives from about a dozen firms, many of which were competitors. Though some of these firms had previously worked on parish projects, that was not a requirement to participate in the summit.

The summit opened with a facilitated group discussion to introduce the proposed program and individual projects. During this session, participants had the opportunity to examine each project and consider its feasibility within the proposed time frame and funding.

Then participants broke out into four teams, each representing a cross-section of the firms. The proposed projects had been divided into equal geographic quadrants of the parish, and each breakout team was assigned to evaluate one of these project groupings.

By the conclusion of the breakout sessions, summit participants had prioritized more than $3 billion in projects. The entire group reconvened and each team presented its findings. The next step was to winnow the list to meet budget constraints. Some large regional projects were tabled as summit participants and department of public works officials tackled issues such as costs, right-of-way concerns, priorities, and project categories.

The projects recommended by the summit were shown on a map that was presented to each council district throughout the parish. Public meetings were held to collect input from the residents and businesses that would be affected by these projects.

"It was important for us to interact with the public to understand how they felt about the projects, the proposed roadways, and provide them with full disclosure about how each project would affect the district in which they lived," says Bryan Harmon, Baton Rouge Department of Public Works deputy director and chief engineer.

Based on the feedback regarding the proposed projects from the summit, the parish developed an $820 million road-improvement initiative, dubbed the "Green Light Plan." In the fall of 2005, voters approved the plan, which provides for 50 miles of road expansion, nine intersection upgrades, a new interchange, 26 new bridges, and a large-scale traffic light synchronization project in downtown Baton Rouge. (See related article in the January issue.)

No compensation or incentives were offered for participating in the summit, nor were there promises of future work on projects resulting from the summit planning. However, many participating firms were among the more than 80 firms selected in the open, competitive bid process to work on Green Light Plan projects.

East Baton Rouge Parish has had success in the past with similar public works summits, and Mayor Holden recently staged a summit to kick-start what became a $1.2 billion parish-wide sewer rehabilitation plan.