Frustration mounts overs plans to build new bridge

Staff Report

Plans to pare down the number of prospective sites for a new Mississippi River Bridge did not come to fruition at the recent meeting of the Capital Area Road and Bridge District.

Instead, the plan shifted into reverse.

Proponents for a new Mississippi River Bridge say the new overpass would ease the long tie-ups commuters face daily.

Three sites the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) previously eliminated are back on the list of where a new bridge may be built south of the Intracoastal Waterway in Port Allen and north of the Sunshine Bridge near Donaldsonville.

The pace of the project – even slower than traffic most afternoons on the Horace Wilkinson Bridge – fueled additional frustration for Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso.

“I thought they’re supposed to be dwindling … I just don’t get it. How do you knock it out and put them back in?,” he said. “Things like that give people a bad impression about government.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, the leaders of the state of Louisiana would’ve made a decision on where the bridge is going,” Ourso said. “It’s tough. People are getting frustrated with the traffic."

West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot, who also serves on the district board, voiced the same dismay over the decision.

“Everywhere I go, people ask why the studies take so long, and it’s hard to give people an answer when you see we’re going backward instead of forward,” he said.

“I understand the due process, but it shouldn’t take this long.”

He said he’s not sure the state can get through the environmental work and other studies without shoring up the needed funding for the project.

Berthelot said he remains optimistic that money from the American Rescue Plan and Build Back America package could make the project a reality, but he’s not holding his breath, either.

“I’m not going to be here when it happens, but I’d like to think it would come soon, possibly with this new money that’s coming we would have the potential to get the finances together to get the project going,” Berthelot said.

A tract near the Dow Chemical crossing, as well as a site south of Addis at Sid Richardson Road connecting to Ben Hur Road near LSU would be among the sites that he considers more viable.

A site in Iberville Parish near the MSA West Academy along La. 1 in Plaquemine could be a possibility.

“The rest get so far down, including a dozen below White Castle to Donaldsonville, and we have a bridge near Donaldsonville (the Sunshine Bridge) that doesn’t have enough traffic” Berthelot said. “To have any relief along I-10, it has to be somewhat closer to Baton Rouge.”

The petrochemical industry’s vast presence on both sides of the river in Iberville Parish justify construction of the bridge between Plaquemine and White Castle, Ourso said.

“What you have now in the area is some of the worst traffic anywhere,” he said.

The use of federal money contributes to the slow movement on the project.

Environmental impact studies and a litany of public hearings bring reduce the pace of road projects to a trickle.

“I’ve always been told by the DOTD that in a perfect world, if we had the money and the project was ready to build, it would take seven years before the rubber met the road,” Ourso said. “That means it’s 10 years with the politics.”

The chairman of the Capitol Area Road and Bridge District, Jay Campbell, also remains optimistic that the project will begin making paths inward.

An “overly cautious” approach probably played a part in the addition of three routes to the prospect list, he said.

“Given the data points they had, if they’re going to be eliminated, they’ll be eliminated with other data points,” Campbell said.

Three is the magic number of sites for the project to move forward, he said.

Environmental studies – the biggest preliminary phase – begin once the DOTD narrows it to that total.

“The environmental work will take about three years, and that’s a federal situation,” he said.

“I don’t anticipate anything there that’s going to be a surprise by any stretch, but it’s a detailed process they go thorough, and that’s a federal law and declaration that requires that kind of thorough investigation.”

The process of obtaining federal matches has become shortened when states have funding.

Legislation lawmakers approved in the 2021 session allocates vehicle sales tax revenue for major road projects to help the state get the vehicle money.

Three projects – the Mississippi River Bridge project for the Baton Rouge area, replacement of the I-10 bridge between Lake Charles and Westlake, and the completion of I-49 through Lafayette to New Orleans through an upgrade of U.S. 90 – comprise that list.

“Those three major projects give you the seed money to get the federal match, and that could be 80 or 90 percent of the project, depending on what it qualifies for,” Campbell said.

“The sales tax bill gave us a pot of dollars to use for our federal requests.”

State DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson told the board he feels the same type of frustration.

The litany of studies and other requirements needed for funding make the project “far more complicated,” he told the board.

“I’d put that all in capital letters and bold and underline it in parentheses and air quotes because it is very complicated,” Wilson said.

The project will take years to complete, but he said he firmly believes the Westbank area deserves the project.

The area needs it more than ever, he said.

“We’ve heard about East Baton Rouge losing population, but we’re the third fastest growing parish in the state, and 90 percent of that growth is south of the Intracoastal Canal,” Berthelot said. 

“It’s getting heavier and heavier, and we need a way out.”