The cold was numbing, but Mayor Kip Holden could feel the full force of respite.
“Relief is what this project is all about,” Holden said last Thursday in the parking lot of St. Jean Vianney Catholic Church, where city officials met to celebrate the conclusion of the Green Light Plan’s Southeast Area Group Project, “from the inconvenience people have had to suffer from road closures and detours, but also relief from bottlenecks in traffic.”
For 1,500 days, residents and city officials had struggled through the $30 million project, which is among the biggest arms of Holden’s 2005 Green Light Plan, a program which extended a half-cent sales tax “to improve roadway infrastructure and citizen safety throughout East Baton Rouge Parish,” according to the plan’s website.
Of the dozens of projects under the Green Light umbrella, none have been as arduous as the Southeast Area Group Project. Local businesses and commuters battled detours, road elevations, and closures for twice the original anticipated time of construction.
“It was a three-year nightmare,” local florist Rickey Heroman told The Advocate last week, citing an 80 percent reduction in walk-in traffic.
On Thursday, Holden’s ears were covered to keep out the cold, but the silence his earmuffs afforded – after years of complaints from frustrated residents – might have been more welcome than the warmth.
“This is probably one of the most difficult projects we’ve had,” he said. “The good thing about this [construction] crew is even though they receive calls, they were never frustrated to the point where they said, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’”
The result of crew and resident patience: major improvements to the roads and embankments on South Harrell’s Ferry Road and O’Neal Lane, two major bypasses for traffic in the southeast region of the city.
Both roads added two through lanes, sidewalks, and raised medians. South Harrell’s Ferry added a new intersection at Jones Creek Road, a new drainage crossing, and a raised roadway at the Knox Branch crossing, and O’Neal received major sewage capacity upgrades.
On O’Neal, crews also completed the clearing, grubbing, and placement of embankment for crossings at Jones Creek and Knox Branch, where bids for construction on roadway and bridge additions are set to begin later in the year.
If those three paragraphs were hard to read, it’s understandable how difficult they were to complete.
“This was an extremely complex job with many, many pieces,” said David Guillory, Director of the Department of Public Works. “It’s one of the largest projects we’ve seen in the city-parish.”
If the drive to the press conference were any indication of future traffic, the upgrades – completed by Barber Brothers of Baton Rouge – were worth the wait. O’Neal, once a seemingly innavigable single-lane road brought to a halt during school zone hours, offered no resistance during morning traffic hours Thursday morning from I-12 to South Harrell’s Ferry, where the going was just as easy.
That part, at least, went just according to plan.
“The next time you take a drive or walk down O’Neal or South Harrell’s Ferry,” said Holden, “I want you to think back not just to what these two roadways used to be, but also how far they’ve come.”