Iberville Parish President Ourso, state working to keep new bridge in upcoming budget

Staff Report

Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso said he is working with the local legislative delegation to ensure the 2023 state budget includes funding Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to put toward construction of a new Mississippi River Bridge.

Traffic continues to worsen along the Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge, but several high-ranking lawmakers said they would oppose set-aside funding on a new bridge at least until site selection is completed.

Ourso’s plans came into place after several high-ranking legislators balked over the funding amount Edwards wanted for the projects.

Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, leads the pack among lawmakers who have said they oppose the set-aside as it currently stands.

He said he would only support the measure if the state would make its final choice on the site selection before the session ends June 6.

Ourso said he has met with state Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine, to make sure Schexnayder and other House members do not shut the door on the project.

“We need to make sure that the $500 million for the bridge goes in the budget before the legislature dismisses,” Ourso said. “I’m hoping the site selection is finalized before the session ends.”

Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, said he would support the project only if a site selection has been made.

Gov. Edwards, upon unveiling his 2022 budget proposals, called the project Louisiana’s biggest infrastructure need.

The $500 million proposal could eventually ease the backups that stretch for miles in all four directions leading to the “new” Mississippi River Bridge, which opened in April 1968.

His proposal highlights a budget with $1.6 billion in higher than anticipated revenue. The state is also in line to receive $1 billion more than the normal $200 million a year allocation of funding for the next five years. That money will come from the $1 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

But state Sen. President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said he could not justify putting it in the budget when the project may take at least 20 years to become a reality.

Meanwhile, Democratic state Sen. Sam Jenkins of Shreveport believes the state should use the $500 million to replenish the unemployment trust fund.

The proposed funding in this year’s budget may be the only time the only chance to secure that large of an amount for the project, Ourso said.

“This is a one-time grant – it’s not recurring revenue,” he said. “And, as the rate of inflation continues to climb, it will be harder to secure that money.”

Ourso said he plans to attend the Capital Area Road and Bridge District meeting March 28 to push for the site selection.

He said he remains confident that the project will remain in the budget.

“I have a good feeling it will work out good for Iberville Parish.”

During its December meeting, the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) put back three sites previously eliminated from 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. It moved the list from 17 to 20 sites.

The talk of another Mississippi River Bridge has circulated for more than 30 years, but budgetary roadblocks kept it from advancing past the discussion stage. 

The rate of inflation would likely hike the price tag of the project will probably increase by at least $200 million, DOTD Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson said last month during an address to the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

The state’s allocation is critical to move it forward, he said.

“The federal government looks for a full commitment,” he said.

The DOTD plans to create a connector route from Interstate 10 to reroute the traffic to the new bridge, which would create a connection between La. 1 on the westside to La. 30 on the east bank.

The connector route itself will play an integral role in the project, Wilson said.

“Building a bridge without a connector route to I-10 is not the answer,” he said. “You’ve got to get to I-10 from La. 1 and I-10 from La. 30 to make it meaningful – and if we only build the bridge, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.” 

He said it’s premature to estimate exactly how much more it will cost, although he expects the price tag will swell by at least $200 million.