Finally finished $28 million Staring Lane expansion pleases some, dismays others

East Baton Rouge Parish public officials celebrated the completion Wednesday of one of the more controversial road projects undertaken in recent years — the expansion of Staring Lane.

William Daniel, the former public works director now serving as the mayor’s chief administrative officer, recalled that when the plans were first made public years ago, neighborhood residents rallied and burned him in effigy.

Mayor-President Kip Holden said it’s been one of the most contested projects in his tenure.

“When I would go into a Green Light Plan (road improvements) meeting, I was glad to come back still whole,” he said.

But on Wednesday, marking the end of several years of planning and construction, Baton Rouge officials celebrated a ribbon cutting for the $28 million road improvement project, hailing it as a victory for Baton Rouge drivers that will improve safety while reducing traffic congestion.

Holden said in an interview after the press conference that he thinks the “overwhelming number of residents in the area” have warmed up to the project.

“Residents were adversely impacted by the changes we had to make,” he said. “But the bottom line is simply this: This is one of the most inclusive projects we’ve ever built in the history of Baton Rouge.”

A 2-mile stretch of Staring Lane has been widened from a two-lane, undivided roadway from Perkins Road to Highland Road into a four-lane roadway with sidewalks and a raised, grassy median.

The massive project also included significant sewer upgrades for the area, traffic signal improvements and the replacement of bridges crossing Dawson Creek.

The wider Staring Lane ties into another major road project in the area — the Staring Lane extension finished in June 2011 — which provides a north-south route from Interstate 10 and Essen Lane to Burbank Drive.

What is good news for the motoring public has been a tough pill to swallow for some of the home and business owners situated along the road.

The widening of Staring Lane was carved out of the front yards of dozens of homeowners living along what they say used to be a family-friendly roadway. Twelve properties along the road had to be expropriated entirely.

Gwynn Shamlin, president of the Staring Lane Community Association, lost 25 feet in his front yard — including two beloved magnolia trees — which faces the busy highway.

“It’s so busy it’s ridiculous; we can’t hardly back out of our driveways now or put our garbage cans out,” he said. “The noise level is an issue; it’s almost unbearable, as far as trying to sleep at night.”

Shamlin objected to the project from the beginning, urging the city to consider a three-lane rather than a four-lane road. Now, he said, many of the homeowners along Staring Lane are as close as 16 feet from the thoroughfare.

Shamlin also said he’s nervous about what will happen once the speed limit is increased. It’s 35 mph, because it’s been under construction. But John Snow, a spokesman for the Green Light Plan, said the city-parish will ultimately conduct a traffic study to determine the most appropriate speed.

Austin Benton, who lives in the Magnolia Woods subdivision off of Staring Lane, said he thinks the project is already having a positive impact on traffic in the area.

“People in this town complain about traffic, but this is a main thoroughfare that goes all the way to Burbank (Drive),” he said. “Now you can go all the way downtown. It keeps people off Perkins Road, which is already congested, and off of Highland” Road.

Benton, whose home doesn’t directly face Staring Lane, added that while the project is good for Baton Rouge, “I do feel bad for the property owners.”

Former Metro Councilman Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois attended the mayor’s celebratory press conference with a custom-made cake from Baum’s to whimsically demonstrate his opposition to the project.

The chocolate cake was in the shape of the number 5 and had green frosting lettering which said “Five Year$ goes by like NOTHING for an EBR Road Project!!” It was decorated with green dollar signs.

Bourgeois’s former district included Staring Lane and one of his George’s restaurants is at the corner of Staring and Highland Road.

Bourgeois said the construction on Staring Lane was done to provide more access to the L’Auberge Casino.

“Was it worth it for the casino? Yeah. It’s a casino parkway, but no, we’re not better off,” he said, adding that the long construction period diverted away many customers from his restaurant over the past few years. “You wish you had made over the last five years what I have lost because of this.”

Holden left the press conference without eating Bourgeois’ cake.

The contractor began work on the widening of Staring Lane in Jan. 2011, but the Staring Lane extension project started in 2009.

Metro Councilman John Delgado, who now represents the area including Staring Lane, said the project is important for Baton Rouge, but he is working with the homeowners to provide solutions for their losses.

“Their residential value has been diminished,” he said. “I think it’s going to be very hard for them to sell one of these houses.”

Delgado said he is planning to propose zoning changes to the A-1 residential strip, which would allow for neighborhood office uses along Staring Lane from Menlo Drive to Dawson Creek.

“It will let some commercial aspects come into play here and allow those people who don’t want to live on a highway to sell their homes for offices for doctors, lawyers and accountants,” he said.

The road project was the 28th Green Light Plan project to be completed since voters approved the road construction plan in 2005. Green Light Plan projects are funded with a half-cent sales tax and are intended to reduce traffic across the parish.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.