Final Mississippi River bridge hearing draws large crowd in Plaquemine

Staff Report

The final in a series of Baton Rouge area community meetings to gauge public comment on a new Mississippi River Bridge drew favorable response from most residents in Plaquemine.

The majority of the approximately 500 residents in attendance last week at Carl F. Grant Civic Center gave favorable responses to the plan that the state Department of Transportation and Development has brought to the table as a plan to eventually ease the worsening traffic delays along La. 1 leading to the Mississippi River Bridge, along with tie-ups on La. 30 in St. Gabriel.

Residents look over site proposals for a new Mississippi River Bridge during a DOTD public hearing last week in Plaquemine.

Residents who could not attend any of the previous DOTD meetings can still comment on the project by logging on to mbrsouth.com.

Deadline for public input is May 15.

The Plaquemine meeting brought far more favorable responses than the forum a week earlier in St. Gabriel, where some in attendance said they recognized the need for a new bridge but feared it would hamper quality of life.

“Keep in mind a lot of those people in St. Gabriel crossed over the parish line from Baton Rouge for that meeting,” Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso said.

Site location could be narrowed down to three by June and finally to one site after completion environmental impact studies that the federal government requires as part of the project.

The final selection could up to two years, DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said last week.

Officials agree that the final selection will not be a “one size fits all” scenario.

Approximately 500 residents attended the final community meeting for public comment on a proposed Mississippi River Bridge. The artery would connect La. 1 on the westbank to La. 30 east of the Mississippi River.

“There’s never going to be a perfect location. Never.” Ourso said. “But it’s something we’ve needed for a long, long time.

“This parish has produced industry and jobs for all the surrounding metropolitan area, and we take the traffic,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong … with the traffic, we get the taxes, too.”

For local residents, a new bridge is crucial for “quality of life” aspects.

“On this side of the river, we don’t have the available doctors they have in Baton Rouge,” Plaquemine resident Stella Tanoos said. “I’m all for the bridge, and West Baton Rouge people say they don’t want a third bridge in the parish.”

It's past time for a new bridge, she said.

“Most of us here tonight are older, and we’ll probably never see it,” Tanoos said. “But there’s no denying that we need it … the people opposed to the bridge have never sat in this kind of traffic.”

Iberville has operated in a regressive mode of transportation across the river for too long, and it’s time to move forward, Ourso said.

“It’s time for the iconic Plaquemine Ferry to be put to sleep and for it to be put on drydock,” he said. “It’s time for it to be drydocked.

“It’s time for us to get a bridge in Iberville parish between the MSA

West (south of the Plaquemine city limits) and the Town of White Castle,” Ourso said.

Several discussions and proposals for a new bridge have fizzled over the last four decades.

All the while, traffic congestion has multiplied with more vehicles on the highways and additional commuters to industrial jobs along the Westbank.

Ourso has pushed for bridge location between Plaquemine and White Castle, but the state and federal government will make the final call.

“The consultants know where the final three are, but because of the federal regulations they had to go through the process of community meetings to prove they don’t leave off anything that’s required,” he said. “It made it easier when the consultants, Coast Guard and riverboat pilots got it down from 20 prospective locations to 10. These 10 are navigable for shipping.

“I’m excited about the end of May when we can see where the three sites are,” Ourso said. “And then in the next year or two, we can get it down to one.”

Funding will pose another hurdle. The House Appropriations Committee voted in April 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. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards has recommended $500 million for the bridge in his proposed 2023 state budget.

“I think even the governor realizes some of the money will be stripped … that’s how it is,” Ourso said.

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.

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

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.

Ward serves on the Senate Transportation Committee and heads the Capital Area Roads and Bridges District, which was formed in 2018 for the purpose of discussion toward a new bridge.

The last bridge completed across the Mississippi River was the Audubon Bridge, which connects Pointe Coupee Parish to West Feliciana at U.S. 61. It opened in 2011.

The last Mississippi River Bridge constructed south of the Intracoastal Waterway in Port Allen was 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 along Interstate 10, opened in April 1968.