Improving lives in a capital city with more equitable investments in roads, transit and stormwater management
A vision for improved mobility, safety and opportunity is taking shape across the diverse city of Baton Rouge, drawing on the involvement and ideas of citizens themselves.
By Sharon Weston Broome, Mayor-President | City of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana
Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, is a city on the move, making unprecedented investments in improving public safety, economic development and infrastructure. Importantly, since our administration began its work in January 2017, we have made an unprecedented commitment to ensuring that every community participates in our success, especially the poorest of our neighborhoods, which have been left behind due to disinvestment across many decades.
We have embarked on a broad-based program that, among other things, is improving our transportation system and how we deal with the escalating risks posed by flooding from hurricanes and other now all-too-frequent intense storms. We are investing in ways that will have a multi-generational impact on our communities – with a focus on inclusion and opportunity for all our citizens. These are some of the strategies we are pursuing.
1. Establishing a framework for action with insights from hundreds of stakeholders
We have made inclusion a centerpiece of the administration, beginning with the hundreds of diverse stakeholders on our transition team who helped to shape our vision for the future. The ideas and insights people shared were voluminous and they continue to help us fully understand what the community needs. We started out by working on several issues we could immediately address, but also began moving forward on issues such as infrastructure, which we knew would take longer but needed serious attention. We have been very intentional about reiterating the goals that came out of those early days and we provide regular updates on our progress all across the city. We can’t have one part of our community at an A grade and another at a D grade and expect it to be a thriving community. We’re determined to elevate all communities as we keep moving forward.
2. Creating an ambitious transportation initiative aimed at advancing equity and accessibility
We have a plan called MOVEBR that represents a billion-dollar investment in roads and infrastructure, which is funded by a 30-year, half-cent sales tax that voters approved at the ballot box in December 2018. It involves about 70 projects across the city to improve roads, make streets more accessible for drivers and public transit users, create bike lanes and make sidewalks safer. MOVEBR is advancing both access and equity on all fronts, particularly in areas that have been marked by disinvestment in the past. We have ensured the plan transcends every council district in the city and parish and engages a diverse group of businesses in terms of contracts and business opportunity. People will not only benefit from improvements taking place in their communities, but also in the economics of a massive program like this. We broke ground on our first construction project last year and will have 21 projects underway by the end of 2021.
3. Creating data-driven approaches to address stormwater threats that affect every city sector
Flooding and drainage issues have been front and center here since August 2016, when a 100-year flood affected virtually every part of the city – including areas that had never flooded before. That is why we have been developing Baton Rouge’s first comprehensive plan to mitigate drainage issues in our community. Our Stormwater Master Plan is collecting data on drainage infrastructure across the parish, so we will know where the major issues are and create a road map for addressing them. Of course, a project of this scale takes time to implement and the weather doesn't wait on our projects. The frequency of major flash floods coupled with an increased number of hurricanes—like Hurricane Ida in August—and tropical storms have our citizens and elected leaders on high alert, but we are moving in the right direction. Using the Master Plan’s drainage data and cutting-edge computer modeling, we’ll be able to move forward with work that will deliver a more effective drainage system for our city’s future.
4. Broadening the impact of public transit with the state’s first bus-rapid-transit system
In recent decades, there has been significant growth in south Baton Rouge as north Baton Rouge has continued to decline economically. At the time I took office, there was a plan to connect the Louisiana State University campus and downtown Baton Rouge with a new streetcar system, which has its merits. However, we saw that an alternative approach – Bus Rapid Transit – could meet those same goals and have a greater impact on mobility while also serving as an anchor for reinvestment in north Baton Rouge, one of the community’s major areas of disinvestment. Many cities around the country are favoring BRT because it can connect nodes across distances greater than 10 miles, which is something modern streetcars can’t achieve cost-effectively. We believe that the BRT system will provide a reliable, attractive and efficient way for people to access vital services and job opportunities. Significantly, Baton Rouge’s BRT project will be the first in the state of Louisiana—but certainly not the last.
5. Advocating for passenger rail to spur economic opportunity and regional vitality
Prospects are brightening for transformed travel between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, including a passenger rail project that’s been talked about for decades. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many displaced New Orleans residents relocated to communities northwest of the city along Interstate 10 including to Baton Rouge. A good number retained their jobs in New Orleans, so since 2005 we’ve seen tremendous growth in daily commutes between these cities, in both directions, which has made driving times unpredictable. The good news is the conditions for advancing a new passenger rail service along I-10 have improved significantly. Federal intercity rail funding may be coming soon. Amtrak is including this envisioned rail line in its long-range plan, and there are ongoing negotiations between two major railroad companies that will affect rail operations between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Importantly, political and business leaders in both cities and the parishes along the line are united in their support to move the project forward. Governor John Bel Edwards has publicly voiced support, as well. We are hopeful that our region will soon enjoy improved economic benefits, development activity and quality of life improvements that a modern passenger rail system can support.
As we pursue all these initiatives, we are striving to earn the public trust by not only keeping our promises but also maintaining good communications. This has been challenging because major infrastructure work takes time. We know that people want and need improved mobility, safety and opportunity right now. So, we are working closely with federal, state and local officials – and with community stakeholders and citizens – to move as quickly as possible. We are confident that the coming months and years will bring exciting, positive improvements to this great city – particularly in those areas that have been waiting so long for change to come to deliver the benefits that the people of this great city deserve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sharon Weston Broome is Mayor-President of the City of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. She took office in January 2017, becoming the first African-American woman elected to lead the state’s capital city. Since taking office, Mayor Broome has sought to improve citizens’ quality of life while building resiliency through infrastructure improvements. She has focused on addressing transportation, drainage, public safety, education, economic development and revitalizing neighborhoods. Voters elected her to a second term in December 2020. She previously served as a Baton Rouge Metro Council Member, and made history in both chambers of the state legislature, becoming the first woman to hold the leadership positions of Speaker Pro Tempore in the House and President Pro Tempore in the Senate. Mayor Broome holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse and an M.A. in Communications from Regent University.