Road construction nightmare in Southeast BR finally over

Road work on major portions of O’Neal Lane and South Harrell’s Ferry Road in southeast Baton Rouge is finally finished, after four long and frustrating years of traffic delays from the chaotic conditions created during construction.

Construction, which started in 2009, was initially estimated to take 720 days. The work ended up taking more than twice that long — 1,500 days — by the time it was finished this past week.

The complicated road work jammed traffic, created detours and restricted turns, which was annoying to homeowners and devastating to many shops that say they lost crucial business during those years.

Florist Rickey Heroman, who owns a flower shop on O’Neal Lane north of South Harrell’s Ferry Road, said he lost 80 percent of his walk-in traffic, which amounted to about 30 percent of total business for the store.

Public Works Director David Guillory said he regrets the project took so long, but now that the roads are open, the residents will enjoy a better quality of life thanks to the improved traffic flow.

“I’m sure it was a very long headache during the construction, and I wanted this job to be over just as bad as the residents did,” Guillory said. “But what you have now is a brand-new road that will absolutely improve traffic and reduce travel times.”

Heroman owns two other locations that helped offset the losses from his flower shop on O’Neal Lane. But, he said, many other businesses weren’t so lucky.

“It definitely impacted a lot of those businesses and some of them closed up,” he said. “It was a three-year nightmare.”

In addition to people being directed away from his store front because of the traffic problems, he said, construction often led to power and phone line outages and to his alarm system being falsely set off.

Heroman said he blames the city-parish for not coordinating better with businesses and homeowners about complications related to the long construction time line.

When the streets were raised, he said, the drop off was so steep that “customers couldn’t get to the store if they wanted to,” and he had to call the city to ask them to lay gravel on the sides of the road for safety.

Heroman said he thinks the city-parish should reimburse businesses for lost revenue.

Joy Bananno owned the Mane Event hair salon off O’Neal Lane with her husband for 29 years until they closed up shop in January.

She said the loss of clientele from construction was a contributing factor in their decision to shut down and find new jobs at a salon in Livingston Parish.

Bananno estimated the prolonged road construction cut 35 percent of their regular revenue. She said made it difficult for some of the newer hairdressers to attract new customers.

“It hurt business big time,” she said. “We had some girls working for us who didn’t have a great clientele built up and they might have starved to death from the lack of business.”

The multipronged Green Light Plan project to improve O’Neal Lane and South Harrell’s Ferry Road bore a $30.5 million price tag. The Green Light Plan is a voter-approved, half-cent sales tax funded road improvements plan conceived by Mayor-President Kip Holden in 2005.

As part of the most recent project, South Harrell’s Ferry Road from Millerville to the O’Neal Lane intersection went from two lanes to four lanes, with sidewalks and a raised median.

O’Neal Lane, from South Harrell’s Ferry Road to Interstate 12, also went from two to four lanes and received sidewalks and a raised median. The project also included key sewer system upgrades.

Guillory said the project was identified initially because it was an underserved area with roads leading to some of the parish’s biggest neighborhoods, including White Oaks and Shenandoah.

“It was one of the biggest bang for your buck projects,” Guillory said.

The schedule was prolonged because of frequent and often unforeseen issues with utilities that needed to be relocated, Guillory said.

He also suggested there were issues with the contractor Barber Brothers, adding he didn’t want to comment on its performance because of the “possibility of legal action as a result of actions on the job.”

At a town hall meeting in 2012, then-DPW Director William Daniel expressed disappointment with Barber Brothers.

“Did we want to go with this particular contract? No, the answer is that we did not,” Daniel told the residents at the time.

With regard to the losses to local businesses, Guillory said the long-term impacts of the road improvements will prove beneficial to the economy.

Lee Barber III, Barber Brothers vice president, said he understands the public’s frustration with the project but insists it was not their fault. “We do not agree with the public and the city’s allegations that this had anything to do with Barber Brother’s construction abilities,” he said, declining to further elaborate.

Mayor-President Kip Holden will host a ribbon cutting for the project at St. Jean Vianney Catholic Church at 10 a.m. Thursday.

“The completion of one of the largest road construction projects our city-parish has ever undertaken and the official opening up of both O’Neal Lane and South Harrell’s Ferry Road is a welcome sight for many, especially all the residents, businesses, and schools in the area that have patiently waited for this day to come,” Holden said in a statement.

Bids will be taken later this year for another phase of work on O’Neal Lane, improvements from South Harrell’s Ferry Road to George O’Neal Road.