BR mayor miffed at not being consulted on ‘inner loop’ plan

Baton Rouge officials say they are frustrated that state legislators who are talking about building an “Inner Loop” toll road across the parish never consulted with the Mayor’s Office or local transportation authorities.

Baton Rouge-area state legislators, led by state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, are pitching a toll road around Baton Rouge dubbed “BUMP” — Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan.

Referred to by supporters as an inner loop, it would widen Airline Highway and connect Interstates 10, 12 and 110, U.S. 61 and U.S 190. The price tag is estimated at $700 million to $1 billion.

But Mayor-President Kip Holden and representatives from his office said this week the Legislature has yet to approach them about the massive infrastructure project.

Holden said news of the legislative initiative has resulted in calls to his office from concerned constituents along Airline Highway who want to know what’s going on.

“We’re getting some irate people calling us for a plan that was put out by our legislative delegation without any consultation,” Holden said. “The city, and a lot of the other parish presidents were not consulted.”

Holden administration officials expressed concerns that the proposal could compete with years of planning, studies and other work already invested in the Baton Rouge Loop, a proposed 85-mile roadway circling the capitol region with an estimated price tag of $4.5 billion.

Like the recently proposed BUMP project, the Loop would operate as a toll road and be funded through a public-private partnership.

Holden noted that the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is overseen by the Capital Region Planning Commission, was not involved in the BUMP proposal.

The MPO is the transportation policy-making organization which sets project priorities for the region and is made up of representatives from the various local governments, including Holden.

“Are they trying to usurp the powers of the MPO?” Holden said. “This is not necessarily a legislative responsibility alone.”

Holden also expressed concerns about the plan’s impact.

“How are you going to turn Airline Highway into a place where you go 70 miles an hour?” he said. “What’s going to happen to the businesses along Airline Highway? What about the safety of the people crossing Airline Highway?”

The BUMP plan envisions frontage roads parallel to Airline Highway that would provide toll-fee alternatives for local residents and access to businesses.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Holden, said the administration’s priority continues to be the Northern Bypass, which is the 25-mile northern portion of the Loop, estimated to cost about $750 million.

“We are so much further along on the Northern Bypass and that is our priority,” Daniel said. “Having been a former legislator, I certainly understand the role that they play in trying to secure capital outlay funds and all of that, but I certainly hope they’d come talk to us about the priorities.”

While in theory BUMP could tie into the loop, realistically, the two projects will compete for both public and private funds, said Mike Bruce, a contracted mayoral aide, whose firm, Stantec, is a lead on the Loop project.

Foil stressed he fully supported the Baton Rouge Loop project, and has voted to support funding for it in the past.

But he said he thinks the Loop lacks the necessary support from his colleagues in the legislature, which will prevent it from receiving additional public funding.

Foil said the BUMP proposal can alleviate traffic issues in a shorter time frame, adding that it already has the support of most members of the Capital Region Legislative Delegation.

Asked why the Mayor’s Office had not been involved, Foil said the project was still in its early stages.

“All we’ve proposed is a feasibility study and an environmental assessment, so we are just trying to see if it’s going to be possible,” he said. “This is just the first step.”

The initial phase of BUMP envisions a new four-lane corridor on Airline Highway from near Airline and Interstate 12 to U.S. 190 and the old Mississippi River bridge.

Motorists could go 70 miles per hour on an Interstate-style surface, which could be operational in as little as five years, backers say.

In addition, a new four-lane road, roughly three miles long, would be built between a site just west of the bridge to Interstate 10, three to five miles west of La. 415.

The Loop has been trudging along at a snail’s pace for years.

The project has been waiting for more than a year to receive a “Record of Decision,” a federal permit that would green light the project. Bruce said once the permit is issued, which he expects in the next few months, a private contractor could be consulted on building the project.

He said public dollars typically would be used to pay for “everything right up to construction,” which includes funds for purchasing the right of way and designing the project. The contractor would then pay for construction of the roadway, getting its money back and making a profit for investors through tolls collected over a period of years.

Bruce estimated the pre-construction costs for the Northern Bypass at about $10 million.

The state has so far been reluctant to provide additional funds for the Loop, so Bruce said they could ask the contractor to take on more risk and provide the additional pre-construction funds.

In 2010, the Legislature supported $5 million of state spending toward the Loop. However, Gov. Bobby Jindal used his line item veto to remove the funds.

Jindal appears to have some interest in the BUMP project. At the request of the Capital Region delegation, he agreed to request $3.5 million in his capital outlay budget for a feasibility study.