In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the historic traffic congestion in East Baton Rouge Parish escalated to epic proportions. Tired of seeing his parish operate in a state of perpetual gridlock, then-Mayor Kip Holden introduced the Green Light Plan (GLP), a series of 42 road improvement projects including the construction of new roads, widening of existing roads, intersection improvements, and upgrades to traffic signalization and synchronization. The Green Light Plan ushered in the first major road construction program for East Baton Rouge Parish in over 60 years.
To make the program possible, Mayor Holden asked voters to extend a half-cent pothole tax already on the books from five to 25 years. More significantly, he asked the public to allow the Parish to bond future revenue, something voters had not approved since 1964. The issuance of more than $300 million in bonds, Holden argued, would allow the city to move forward on its projects much more quickly. Instead of waiting years between projects for the tax to generate enough money to start a new initiative, the Parish could raise a large amount of money in short order, thus allowing it to start several projects right away and really get traffic moving in East Baton Rouge.
Ultimately, the voters said yes to Holden’s plan. The Mayor and his administration then selected the experts at CSRS to help manage the implementation of $700 million in improvements to the roadway and traffic system, representing the most aggressive road construction program in Parish history.
When CSRS came on board as program manager, responsible for project scoping, budgeting, scheduling, and agency coordination, the huge demand for contract work in post-Katrina Louisiana had driven prices sky-high. CSRS helped the parish re-evaluate project plans and develop a realistic picture of project costs and schedules. By slating some of the smaller, lower-cost projects first, the Parish could save money by waiting on its larger initiatives until the inflated construction prices began to settle back down.
“We partnered with the client to tackle different parts of the project simultaneously. So while design studies were happening, we were doing field surveys. And while the engineers were finalizing designs, we were already negotiating land acquisitions and proceeding with permits.”
At the same, CSRS helped the Parish adopt new procedures to condense project timelines, expedite the engineering process, and ultimately bring projects to construction more quickly. “Traditionally, the Parish would do things one step at a time,” says Michael Songy, P.E., P.L.S., CSRS’ CEO and Green Light Plan Program Director. “We showed them how to tackle different parts of the project simultaneously. So while design studies were happening, we were doing field surveys. And while the engineers were finalizing designs, we were already negotiating land acquisitions and proceeding with permits.” This approach shaved years off the timelines of individual projects. “The public was amazed at how quickly we were able to make progress.”
One of the keys to the program’s success was thoroughly understanding the obstacles and right-of-way constraints each project would need to overcome before reaching construction. With 700 parcels of land to be acquired to move the program forward, along with permits from the railroads, Corps of Engineers, and several other state and federal agencies, CSRS recommended establishing a special right-of-way committee to meet weekly and stay on top of the process.
To help minimize right-of-way acquisition costs and preserve as much existing infrastructure as possible, CSRS worked with the engineers early on to help guide the design of road projects. For example, “Instead of just automatically buying 20 feet of land on each side of an existing road for a widening project, we would recommend doing the majority of the widening on one side or the other if there were no parking lots or other structures on that side,” explains Songy.
This approach not only saved money, it also helped promote public acceptance of the project. “We worked very hard to limit the number of homes and other buildings that would have to be removed to expedite these projects,” Songy says.
CSRS was equally instrumental in helping East Baton Rouge Parish avoid future acquisition costs. By working with the planning and permitting offices to stay up to date on any new developments coming to town, the CSRS team was able to work with developers, making suggestions for planning around the forthcoming roadway improvement projects. This forward thinking saved the Parish money while saving developers a lot of time and frustration as well.
“We didn’t want a developer building a new parking lot that we were going to have to come in and remove three months later.” – Michael Songy
Quick project progress and seeing some of the traffic problems ease up all throughout the parish went a long way in creating public support for the program. CSRS helped further engage the community with a project website as well as public meetings to discuss and debate particularly controversial projects. “The public could clearly see that we were working hard to improve the traffic problem, and they appreciated that,” Songy says. “We kept them fully informed of the changes coming their way so they could understand what we were doing, why, and understand how it would benefit the Parish overall.”
To date, around 70% of the planned projects are complete, and residents have been enjoying many of the improved roadways for years. The tax that voters approved in 2005 will stay in effect until 2030 to help generate the additional funds needed to complete the remaining projects in the program.
While the administration has changed in East Baton Rouge Parish, CSRS has remained onboard, receiving 11 contract renewals since 2006. “Without the Green Light Plan, the parish would have completed maybe eight projects in the past 12 years compared to the 30 or so that have been finalized or are near completion today,” Songy says. Ultimately, the Green Light Plan has made the Parish more than a better place to drive; it’s become a better community in which to work and live.
“For 10 years, CSRS, Inc.’s reputation of professional execution of the program has been widely recognized and has built a public trust in the program that gives us confidence in proceeding ahead with a second phase of the program. I would highly recommend them for any similar transportation program.” – William B. Daniel IV, PE
Former Chief Administrative Officer, East Baton Rouge Parish