Inside Report: Toll road has to overcome long history

Does the push to build a nearly $1 billion toll road around Baton Rouge have much chance of becoming reality?

Is it any more viable than other grandiose plans, including a $4.4 billion airport near Donaldsonville that never got off the ground, rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that springs up periodically and the long-discussed $4.5 billion loop around the Capital City?

Backers insist the proposal is no pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

The 30-member Capitol Region Legislative Delegation, which includes lawmakers from nine area parishes, has made the road its top priority.

The group also convinced Gov. Bobby Jindal to ask the Legislature for $3.5 million to evaluate the proposal, which is supposed to connect Interstates 10, 12 and 110 and U.S. 61 and U.S. 190.

The key feature is a four-lane toll road that would allow motorists to zoom along at 70 mph on a recreated Airline Highway between the Airline and I-12 interchange to the old Mississippi River bridge.

“Our delegation really got interested in this last year,” said state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, one of the leaders of the effort.

“We were looking for something we could do quickly and that we could afford to alleviate the traffic on the interstates downtown and the new bridge,” he said.

If things go right, backers say, the whole thing could go up in five years.

So this could happen by 2019?

Not quite.

Little would get underway before the initial study is done, and when that even begins is unclear.

Jindal’s $3.5 million request is split into two priorities: fairly high and not so high.

That means it could easily take two legislative sessions, this one and 2015, to get all the money needed for the evaluation, assuming the Legislature agrees. Then the review itself would take up to two years, according to Sherri LeBas, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

Supporters say one of the beauties of the proposal is that the state or city-parish already owns much of the key land, which would trim any time-consuming efforts to acquire property.

They also say wetlands and similar issues should not pose crippling, environmental delays.

However, any review for a toll road that would cut through Baton Rouge has the potential to spark issues from business owners, homeowners and others.

Also, studies often beget still more studies.

The trickiest part of the enterprise would be finding a private contractor who wants to join the state in a public-private partnership and build the toll road in hopes of solid profits later.

Foil said today’s traffic figures would make the venture appealing.

“You have a lot of density in this area,” he said. “That is why this project is attractive to us.”

Backers of the $4.4 billion airport used to say the same thing.

They spent 17 years touting an airport with links to water, rail and highways that was supposed to go up on a 25,000-acre site covering parts of Iberville, Ascension and Assumption parishes.

Once a private firm or firms see the beauty of making the investment, they said, the airport would take off.

It never happened. After spending $7 million for studies and other work, state officials pulled the plug in 2009.

The latest chatter about building a railroad between Baton Rouge and New Orleans assumes the federal government would pay most of the costs.

Yet, LeBas and other state transportation leaders already are fearful of a flat revenue stream of federal tax dollars, which often pays for 80 percent of major projects.

They also think aid for Louisiana and other states could be reduced this year, adding still more complications for a state with a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

The Baton Rouge loop is bogged down in environmental and other reviews.

Where the money would come from is still unclear, but, like the toll road, private investors are often cited.

Is the toll road a daydream? No.

But like any mega project, it needs major political muscle behind it, like a governor and key lawmakers. A unified front among Baton Rouge area officials is also essential and another question mark.

Anything short of that will likely keep the plan as just another nice idea that goes nowhere.

Will Sentell covers state transportation issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com.