Eastbank residents open to new Mississippi River bridge plan, leery of proposed sites

Staff Report

East Iberville residents say they are receptive to the plans for a new Mississippi River bridge, but concerns abound over the location and the aftermath of the project.

More than 300 residents attended a forum the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development at St. Gabriel Community Center, where officials answered questions and explained possible locations for the project.

More than 300 residents attended the DOTD meeting last week at St. Gabriel Community Center.

Residents at the event said they do not oppose the project itself. The location of the proposed bridge and the effect on the quality of life in the area are their biggest issues.

“I try to look at things with a vision toward the community, whom I think have to come first,” St. Gabriel resident Marcia Hardy said. “They’ve been very informative here, but I know people whose property it’s going to impact.”

Hardy’s property is listed as a State of Louisiana Natural Heritage Area.

“Right now, it has a route that would go through it, and LDWF says it would cause considerable damage to the habitat and the animals,” she said. “And then, there’s a predominately Black community on Martin Luther King Parkway, and that would have a major effect on that area … those people have lived there for generations.”

Glenda Peeler has lived on property along Martin Luther King Parkway, which has been a predominately Black community going back into the 19th century.

Issues with a bridge location in her area would extend beyond the additional traffic, she said.

“My concern is where those people will go,” she said. “There’s a fear of being uprooted, and we don’t want it to dampen our quality of life.”

John and Jennette Montgomery, who live in University Club South, favor the project.

But with that project will come inevitable, John Montgomery said.

“Traffic is heavy now, and although I know they will eventually four-lane Hwy. 30, it won’t make much difference once a bridge comes here – you build it, they will come,” he said. “I don’t disagree with the idea of building a bridge, but it will make traffic heavier in this area.”

DOTD has narrowed the list of prospective sites from 32 to 10 over the last year.

DOTD Project Manager Paul Voght speaks with St. Gabriel resident Marcia Hardy about prospective sites for a new Mississippi River bridge during a meeting last week at the St. Gabriel Community Center.

The number will be reduced to three by summer, according to DOTD Project Manager Paul Voght.

“We started with, conceptually, where we could put a bridge between Interstate 10 and the Sunshine Bridge, and we came up with all the plausible alternatives,” he said. “Once we got those 32 alternatives, we went through a process of getting environmental information, traffic information, the modeling and toll feasibility.

“This is about what they like, what they don’t like and what information they potentially have that we don’t know because we don’t want to do is make a decision based on partial or incomplete information,” Voght said. “We used that information to screen them down in a multistep process that has got it down to this 10, and we summarized the information on those remaining 10.” 

The meetings – which were set to conclude with a forum in Plaquemine on May 3, after press time – give DOTD a way to screen which sites may be most receptive to residents.

The comments play a key role in the final decision, DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said.

A DOTD map shows prospective sites for a new Mississippi Bridge, which would connect Baton Rouge to one of 10 sites along the Westbank, ranging from West Baton Rouge Parish to the Sunshine Bridge.

“We don’t want to build a billion-dollar bridge in a particular location when those residents and other landowners don’t want it there,” he said.

The reduction to three sites will lead to the environmental studies. The results of those surveys will allow DOTD to make the final decision.

DOTD had to break down to three before environmental studies begin.

“Starting at that 32, we can’t feasibly or economically do the environmental and historical issues,” Voght said. “The goal is to get Federal Highway Administration approval, and we must do these processes and the in-depth investigation because this is the quickest way to do the elimination process.

“By starting with a broad brush and narrowing it down, it enables us to explain the selection process,” he said. “We’d love to be able to say we’ve already built the bridge.”

Voght said he realizes the final decision will not gain unanimous approval from residents in any of the proposed sites.

It’s understandable that people have concerns especially when they think it impacts them directly, so part of this was to provide accurate information so they can draw their own conclusions.

“We’re not going to be able to make everyone happy,” Voght said. “There will be some people upset about where we put it and have all thoughts about where we should put it, but our goal is to make the best decision we can.”

The meetings began at the same time Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, launched an ad campaign in which he urged residents to contact state lawmakers and give their support for the project, which has been a talking point since the 1980s.

The project gained its biggest push in January when Gov. John Bel Edwards recommended a line item in the proposed 2023 budget that would funnel $500 million for the bridge, which would be located between Addis and White Castle.

The House Appropriations Committee voted last week to divert $100 million of that funding to preservation projects across the state.

The remaining $400 million is not earmarked for the bridge, although it still could go to that project. 

Ward – a member of the Senate Transportation, Highways & Public Works Committee –remains optimistic that next year’s state budget will include money to put the wheels in motion for the bridge project.

The $500 million represents 20 percent of the estimated $2.5 billion price tag for the new bridge and the roadways leading to the artery.

It would mark the first Mississippi River Bridge constructed south of Port Allen since completion of the Sunshine Bridge in 1964.

The Huey P. Long Bridge (the “old” Mississippi River Bridge) was completed in 1940, and the “new” bridge, also known as the Horace Wilkinson Bridge, opened in April 1968.