ABMB is part of a joint venture that is serving as the Prime Consultant on the Baton Rouge Loop project.
Nine months after three of the region’s five parish presidents withdrew support for an effort to build a traffic loop around Baton Rouge, engineers, planners and public relations consultants continue to toil away on the project, billing tens of thousands of dollars each month for their work, records show.
The work is being done under the auspices of the Capital Area Expressway Authority, the legal entity set up to pursue building a $4.5 billion traffic loop that proponents say is badly needed to relieve traffic congestion on the region’s interstate highway system.
The planning and engineering is being done from $4 million the state appropriated for the current phase of the work, which began in early 2009. The city-parish government had previously put up $2 million for the initial phase of the planning.
The three engineering firms, a planner and a public relations consultant involved in the project have submitted bills totaling $597,493 for work performed since April, records show. Some $493,691 of the state’s appropriation remains to be spent.
Mike Bruce, managing principal of ABMB Engineers Inc., one of the lead firms on the loop project, said the engineering and planning work that is currently being conducted is essential to moving the project forward.
He said the loop is far from dead and that one or more public hearings will be held within the next few months to determine final corridors for the loop routes.
The goal, he said, is to complete by early summer an environmental impact statement that is required to obtain a “Record of Decision” — essentially a permit — from the Federal Highway Administration to move forward.
Once that is in hand, Bruce said, it will allow the Capital Area Expressway Authority to pursue sources of funding to build the highway, likely through a public-private partnership.
The proposed 85-mile loop would be constructed as a toll road.
Bruce said the initial focus would be on building the northern section of the loop, which is considered the most economically viable and attractive based on projected traffic volumes.
The 25-mile stretch would extend from Interstate 12 at Walker to I-110, through northern Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes. Costs for that portion are estimated at $757 million.
The loop project appeared to be all but dead after three of the five parish presidents serving on the Capital Area Expressway Authority’s board of directors — Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez, Livingston Parish President Mike Grimmer and Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. — resigned from the board in April.
Vocal opposition from residents of their parishes over possible route alignments, questions about the economic feasibility of the southern portion and other concerns led to the defections.
That left only East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden, who serves as the Capital Area Expressway Authority’s chairman, West Baton Rouge Parish’s Riley “Peewee” Berthelot and Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Sherri LeBas as members of the Authority’s board.
The loop project suffered a further blow in July following Gov. Bobby Jindal’s line-item veto of $5 million Baton Rouge legislators had inserted into a spending bill to be used to further project development.
Bruce said the additional money, if approved, would have been used for the “very complex business” of attracting and negotiating an agreement with a private partner to finance the work. “It involves significant additional technical work but the majority of the money is for the financial and legal analysis needed to protect the public’s investment and risk,” Bruce said.
In his veto message, Jindal noted the withdrawal of elected officials from suburban parishes from loop planning, and that state legislators from those jurisdictions had fought to keep money out of the state spending bill.
“It would therefore be premature to fund the planning of such a large and controversial project until a consensus can be achieved,” Jindal wrote in his veto message.
State Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, a loop opponent, questioned the $6 million that already has been spent planning the road project and the attempt to get $5 million more.
“Why does it take that much taxpayers’ money to just study building a loop?” Erdey said. “I think it’s bizarre.”
The loop project can’t move forward to actual construction, at least not under the auspices of the Capital Area Expressway Authority, without participation by the suburban parishes, officials said.
Jodi Conachen, a spokeswoman for LeBas, said the law establishing the CAEA doesn’t allow it.
“It’s mandated in the law that the CAEA should not undertake construction projects or tolling operations outside the boundaries of participating parishes or municipalities in the Authority,” Conachen said.
Bruce said if the CAEA is able to bring the project to the point of starting construction work, the board’s composition would have to change under its legal charter.
“We will have to add a representative of each and every governmental entity through which it passes, whoever the controlling government entity is,” Bruce said.
It would be up to the expanded board to make decisions on going forward with construction, he said. An alternative, Bruce said, would be for the CAEA to bow out at that point and turn the loop project over to the Louisiana Toll Authority.
That state government entity could determine that the loop is needed to meet regional transportation needs and proceed even if some jurisdictions oppose building it, he said.
The LTA, created by the Louisiana Legislature in 2001, is governed by a nine-member board of directors.
It is chaired by the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Other members include legislative leaders or their designees and appointees of the governor.
Bruce said the routing of any major highway will affect some property owners, and that they tend to be vocal in their opposition and attract a lot of attention.
But he said there remains strong support in the region for a traffic loop. He noted that a poll of the fiveparish region that was commissioned by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber showed 83 percent of those surveyed support building the loop.
While prospects of the loop making it to construction remain uncertain, the engineering and planning work continue.
The three engineering firms, ABMB Engineers, HNTB and URS are each due to receive just over $1 million for their part in the current phase of the loop work.
Portland, Ore.-based planner John Fregonese’s firm is due to receive $329,525 for its work on land use planning for loop corridors.
Another $291,032 is budgeted to pay Marmillion/Gray Media for work on public outreach, media relations and land use planning on the current phase of the project.
“I imagine you have to go through the process once a contract is signed,” said Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez.
But he questioned doing any further engineering or planning work on a southern route for the loop, saying that it isn’t economically feasible to build it.
“That part should certainly be cropped because it just a waste of the taxpayers’ money,” Martinez said. He said there is merit to a northern bypass, noting that idea has been around for a long time. But he said it would be a mistake to try to go forward with building the northern portion of the loop without securing support of the elected officials from that area.
Erdey, the state representative from Livingston Parish, said he recognizes that alternate routes are needed to relieve traffic congestion, but added that an expensive bypass around Baton Rouge isn’t the best solution.
He said officials are working on less-disruptive plans to expand existing routes to Baton Rouge from northern portions of Livingston Parish.
“You create the least inconvenience on businesses and citizens using existing routes,” Erdey said.
Meanwhile, Martinez and Livingston Parish President Grimmer are looking at the possibility of bringing in a private firm to build a toll road between Livingston and Ascension parishes to help solve some traffic woes.
Erdey predicted that any public hearing the Capital Area Expressway Authority holds on the loop will draw plenty of opponents.
“It’s going to be contentious again,” Erdey said. “I would think the opposition would come out in droves, just like they did in the past.”