IBM selects Baton Rouge for 'Smarter Cities Challenge'

$500,000 to go toward addressing city transportation issues

When Baton Rouge competed worldwide for a grant through IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, it had to select an issue critical to the community.

Commuters would certainly approve of the choice — transportation.

IBM announced Tuesday that Baton Rouge is one of 16 cities worldwide — including only four in the U.S. — that won the $500,000 grant, which will be used to explore innovative ways to address traffic and public transit issues.

“I believe that IBM and the IBM team will give us our first in-depth and impartial look at the best solutions for our outdated transportation systems,” Mayor-President Kip Holden said. “These will be solutions based on the best practices throughout the world.”

Later this year, IBM consulting teams will spend several months studying transportation issues in Baton Rouge, then spend three weeks in the Baton Rouge region analyzing data and meeting with government officials, businesses, residents and nonprofit groups.

At the conclusion of the study, IBM will provide a comprehensive recommendation for solving Baton Rouge’s transit problems and later will provide an implementation plan.

IBM suggested its transportation recommendations could be related to “connecting roads, bike paths, sidewalks and rails,” in a news release sent out Tuesday.

While no direct funding is being provided, Baton Rouge Area Chamber President Adam Knapp said the award will be extremely valuable because consultants will evaluate objectively all of the traffic data collected in the region from various agencies and departments and prioritize projects.

“It’s been hard to bring together all of the stakeholders to see that the data points in one direction and say this is objectively, verifiably, the best direction for us to unite on,” Knapp said. “That’s what this type of analysis will accomplish.”

BRAC worked with the Mayor’s Office to apply for the IBM grant.

The study will focus mostly on how to address road congestion through road improvements, Knapp said.

Other elements, such as public transportation, also would be considered, said William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Holden.

Daniel said Baton Rouge has long been “data rich and information poor.” He said the city and state collect an abundance of statistics about transportation but rarely have the resources to analyze it.

As one example, he said, traffic lights count how many cars travel through them every day but that information is “just being put somewhere” and is not being sufficiently analyzed.

“IBM saw some potential for doing some creative things to change some of the problems we have with traffic because of the data we collect,” Daniel said.

Baton Rouge’s application was selected out of more than 100 submitted, said Jim Driesse, IBM’s senior state executive for Louisiana.

Holden stressed the grant award was unrelated to the IBM software center being built in downtown Baton Rouge.

“This was not a quid pro quo; it’s competitive,” he said.

In an interview, Holden stressed transportation is one of the most serious issues facing the parish.

“You hear people griping quite a bit, and we hear them loudly and clearly,” Holden said. “Baton Rouge cannot really go out and attract and recruit companies if we have congestion the way we have it now.”

The Smarter Cities Challenge was originally conceived in 2011 as a three-year grant program, but the results encouraged IBM to extend the initiative.

In its first three years, IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge deployed 600 experts on six-person teams to provide advice to 100 municipalities. Issues addressed ranged from clean water, healthy food and revenue generation to job development, efficient transportation and public safety.

IBM already has more than 100 employees working on its software project out of a temporary location in the Essen Centre office building while its new office in downtown Baton Rouge is under construction.

The project will include a $30 million office building and a $25 million residential tower.

The state lured IBM to the city with a performance-based incentive package that includes grants totaling $29.5 million over 12 years and a $1.5 million contribution from the city-parish to reimburse costs related to recruiting personnel, relocation and other workforce-related costs; internal training; and facility operating expenses.

Other cities or areas chosen for 2014 IBM Smarter City Challenge program are Abuja, Nigeria; Ballarat, Australia; Birmingham, Ala.; Brussels; Dallas; Dublin; Durban, South Africa; Jinan, China; Mombasa County, Kenya; Niigata, Japan; Perth, Australia; Suffolk County, N.Y.; Tainan, Taiwan; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Zapopan, Mexico.

Business Editor Bobby Lamb contributed to this report.