Ourso: Support of bridge plan key to backing governor candidate

Staff Report

The make-or-break point for this year’s gubernatorial candidates will come down to one critical issue if they want Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso’s endorsement.

The key to his support will hinge on whether the candidate will keep plans intact for the Mississippi River bridge project along Iberville Parish’s Westbank and connect to the St. Gabriel/Sunshine area.

Ibervillle Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso says support for the proposed Mississippi River Bridge in Iberville Parish will be the biggest factor for him among candidates for governor. The state Department of Transportation and Development will pare down the options to one site based on the environmental study results.

Gov. John Bel Edwards gave full support of the bridge and announced funding for the project in January 2022.

Depending on whom voters elect this fall, the next governor could move forward on the project or bring it to a grinding halt – and Ourso is well aware of that.

“That’s a concern of mine,” he said. “Why do you think I’m running again?”

It will be the most important question he poses to each candidate whom he meets with during the campaign.

Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso

“When all these candidates come into my office, I’m going to ask them if they’re for the bridge,” Ourso said. “If I hear some hem-hawing, I’ll just tell them to get out of my office.”

He did not hesitate to reply when asked if it was the key to his support.

“Damn right … absolutely,” Ourso said. “This thing has gone this far, and I’d hate to see somebody pull back on this.”

The project has been a part of Ourso’s vision since he took office in 1998.

“We’ve gotten this close, and we’re still in the environmental study right now,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s only going to be one and I want to have my peace with them over the next six or seven months on how I feel about this bridge and what’s their thoughts on it.

“We do too damn much to bring the traffic upon us to open up our doors for industrial development, and I still say we need a bridge,” Ourso said. “I’ve waited this long for it, and I don’t want it to go away.”

The final decision on where to build a new Mississippi Bridge to connect La. 1 to La. 30 now hinges on the results of environmental studies.

The site selection is the next hurdle for the project, which has been on the Iberville Parish wish list for nearly 25 years.

Atlas Technical Consultants and the Capital Area Road and Bridge Commission narrowed the megaproject to three sites, which helped it secure the $300 million in initial funding from the Louisiana Legislature in last year’s regular session.

Atlas and the commission worked over the last year to whittle the project from more than 30 sites down to three. The sites were dotted along a four-parish area – Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Iberville and West Baton Rouge – 62 miles along the Mississippi River from the Wilkinson Bridge (the new Mississippi River Bridge) up to the Sunshine Bridge, south of Donaldsonville.

Five Republicans have announced their intentions to run in the October  election –Attorney General Jeff Landry, state Senate Majority Leader Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell; Republican state Rep. Richard Nelson, Mandeville and businessman Xan John.

U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves and Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder – both Republicans – are also considering candidacy.

Among Democrats, Shawn Wilson – who recently stepped down from his post as DOTD Secretary – has formed an exploratory committee to determine if he will run for governor.

Community organizer Gary Chambers – who opposed Sen. John Kennedy for U.S. Senate seat – has expressed interest in running for governor, but only if Wilson does not run. State Sen. Gary L. Smith Jr., D-Norco, is also considering candidacy.