Bridge discussion continues, but still a long road ahead

Staff report

Parish leaders from Iberville and West Baton Rouge say they remain firmly committed to a push for plans to build a new Mississippi River Bridge, although those still loom far on the horizon.

Parish leaders in the Greater Baton Rouge area remain hopeful that another Mississippi River bridge will eventually come to fruition to end gridlock on I-10 and La. 1.

Studies for the plan have continued through the Capital Area Roads and Bridges District, a coalition aimed at bringing the project to fruition in hopes of easing gridlock on the stretch of the river along Interstate 10, which has long been a source of frustration for motorists.

Solutions to the traffic flow along La. 1 and across the Mississippi River have been major priorities for Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso ever since he took office in 1998.

“Since I’ve been Parish President, I’ve dealt with two parish presidents from West Baton Rouge, three mayor-presidents in Baton Rouge, three parish presidents from Livingston and three or four from Ascension,” he said. “Tom Ed McHugh (former East Baton Rouge Mayor-President) had his own position on it – and we knew that back then – and Kip Holden got into the loop discussion, and that’s when things started going bad.

“And all of a sudden here we are with the bridge, but I’m like anyone else: I think the bridge should go in Iberville Parish so we can get rid of the dysfunctional ferry, which has been running for God knows how long,” Ourso said.

He serves on the committee, which consists of representatives from Iberville, East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes, along with a designee from the state Department of Transportation and Highways. J.H. Campbell, an appointee by Gov. John Bel Edwards, serves as the committee chairman.

The question of when – or even if – the bridge plans come into play over the next few years remains far from certain, Ourso said.

“I really don’t know how long it will take … they don’t have the money to do it,” he said. "Even if they pick a bridge site, we still don’t have the money and even if we have the money, before the rubber meets the road, you’re looking at 10 years.

"In a perfect world, with permitting, the quickest you could do it is in seven years, and we haven’t made a decision on the bridge location,” Ourso said.

Despite an unforeseeable timeline on the plan, he said he will not give up hope.

“I’m not going to be here to see it because I’m retiring after my term,” Ourso said. “But before I leave out of here, I’m just trying to get it because I think we’re deserving of this bridge this close to the capital city, where we can divert some of the traffic on east Iberville to the south route.

“But a decision has not been made on the location, and the question remains who will fund it,” he said.

“It’s a long road ahead.”

'IT’S A PROBLEM'

Ourso is far from the only person who would love to see an end of the hassles with ferry travel.

St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson said the complaints he receives from residents regarding the ferry figure almost like a daily routine.

“I get calls, text, complaints … always an issue with the ferry either being closed or not on schedule,” Johnson said. “I know they have a starting and closing time, but we get calls about possibly modifying the hours of operation … it’s a problem.”

Although the ferry and traffic remain a thorn in his side, he believes widening of La. 30 should take priority.

If a bridge was located along the south end of Plaquemine, it would likely

“No matter where it drops at La. 30, there’s no way it can drop off to a two-lane highway, and I don’t see how it could be anything but a four-lane,” he said.

He does not deny the need for a bridge.

“It’s needed … the traffic is deplorable,” Johnson said. “But in a best-case scenario, a bridge will take at least 10 years.”

The chemical corridor between Baton Rouge and Gonzales makes La. 30 among the most congested surface roads during daily commutes.

Another factor necessitates the need for a wider La. 30, Johnson said.

“I challenge you to come and sit at La. 30 along the East Baton Rouge-Iberville the day they have a home football or baseball game, if they have a regular season,” he said. “That experience would tell the story.”

THE $1 BILLION QUESTION

Even if all discussion of location was discussed and resolved, one glaring issue remains: How to pay for the project, which has an early estimate $1 billion?

Environmental studies and different routes for the bridge have dominated the bulk of the discussion.

West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot said the site decision could come soon, but funding for the project remains uncertain.

It does not keep the planning process stuck in park, however.

“We’re still a ways and don’t have a funding source to say we actually have the money, but we still have to go through the process, even if we don’t have the money,” he said. “But even if we had the money to build the bridge, we would still have to go through the environmental process to get the federal money.”

It may involve different revenue resources, including a toll, which would account for approximately 17 percent of the revenue to build the bridge, Berthelot said.

“If federal money comes to one of these transportation funds in Washington, maybe we can get that money,” Berthelot said. “It probably won’t build the whole project, so we would consider tolls and other sources of income."