In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, former Mayor of Baton Rouge Kip Holden introduced the Green Light Plan, a new transportation program aimed at improving roadway infrastructure with a series of 42 projects. Unprecedented by its scale, this program changed the face of Baton Rouge over the last 12 years, creating new roads, improving intersections and signalizations. The GLP had been approved by nearly 67 percent of voters and was a milestone in the history of the city. Since 1964, it was the first roads construction program to be put in place.
Later, following the 2016 Baton Rouge floods and the consequential road congestion, Holden recommended a new Green Light Plan to accelerate unfinished projects and fund the construction of several more projects. To fund GLP 2, Holden had proposed a new tax: a 5 Mill Property Tax that would last 30 years and would be based on assessed home values.
The tax was originally rejected by East Baton Rouge Parish residents, but newly elected mayor Sharon Weston Broome decided to continue this plan and to broaden its scale. She intended to build more than 40 infrastructure projects to alleviate traffic congestion, synchronize traffic lights and pave sidewalks.
Broome’s Better Transportation and Roads plan would collect the property tax from 2018 to 2047, and the rededication of the .5 percent cent sales tax would last until 2030. While the property tax would fuel $20.2 million every year, which is $585.8 million used as a collateral to issue of a new municipal bond, no financial forecasts have been done by mayor’s staff to understand how the sales tax would impact the budget.
Broome’s last bid to implement BTR crashed on Sept. 13, 2017 when Metro Council refused to let her plan appear on the Nov. 18 ballot. President-Mayor Broome acknowledged she missed her shot and consented in an interview after the vote that "of course I'm disappointed that the BTR plan was not allowed to be on the ballot for people to vote on it, but I'm very proud of the work we've done because, you know, leadership means that you come up with some bold and innovative ideas, and that's what we did with the BTR plan."
The first problem Broome faced was the difference in the priorities BTR citizens weighted on: security and flooding issues seem to be much more important than the implementation of a new road plan. “Economic development, I'm all for, road improvements, I'm all for. But I've got to be safe first. And our community is not safe," Louisiana State Judge Johnson said.
The second problem was the mismanagement of the drafting of the tax and its timeline. A new bill could be compared to a company project: you have to inform and embed many stakeholders to ensure its success. Here, Metro Council members clearly expressed a lack of confidence in Broome’s ability to communicate in a timely manner the details of the tax, ergo, they have been unable to offer a clear picture of this plan to their constituents. Hence, there is no surprise in the lack of support from BTR voters since they were not given enough information to make a thorough analysis of the pros and cons.
The third problem is the cost of the project. There is no visibility over the 5 Mill property tax since no indications have been provided regarding the way the city would pay back the debt brought about by the issue of a new municipal bond. Would it be rated Investment Grade or High Yield? What would be the final cost for Baton Rouge residents?
A lot of questions remain and gaining the confidence of BTR taxpayers should now be the top priority to restore BTR roads. Numerous solutions could be used to improve the plan: reducing its scale and relying only on the former sales tax would reduce considerably the financial burden. Focusing on mobility improvements, community enhancement and advanced traffic management through the purchase of a new software such as the Split Cycle Offset Optimisation Technique adaptive control system also used in London, would also decrease the total cost of BTR plan to $179.4M instead of $540.4M.
Edward d'Espalungue is a guest columnist for The Daily Reveille.