Jefferson officials hope wider Huey P. Long will encourage development on West Bank

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The west bank of Jefferson Parish around the Huey P. Long Bridge has remained a sleepy, residential area, unlike the bustling Elmwood area on the east bank side of the bridge. Officials hope the widening project will mean lots of new development. A dog walks across a trafficless Bridge City Avenue Thursday, June 13, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The west bank of Jefferson Parish around the Huey P. Long Bridge has remained a sleepy, residential area, unlike the bustling Elmwood area on the east bank side of the bridge. Officials hope the widening project will mean lots of new development. A dog walks across a trafficless Bridge City Avenue Thursday, June 13, 2013.

When it was first built, the Huey P. Long Bridge carried with it the promise of providing the first direct link between the two banks of the Mississippi River, just upriver from New Orleans.

But almost seven decades later, a trip across the bridge is a stark example of just how much of a barrier the river can be.

As they drive onto the bridge in Elmwood, motorists leave a packed and bustling commercial corridor, densely filled with stores, restaurants and warehouses that line the heavily trafficked Clearview Parkway.

But upon exiting, they find themselves in the sleepy and sparsely developed neighborhood of Bridge City where small residential streets bear little relation to the energy and density just a river-crossing away. Beyond that, lies thousands of acres of vacant land, some of the last property in densely packed Jefferson Parish that has yet to be developed.

But with the completion of the bridge widening project being celebrated today, economic development officials hope to inaugurate a new era for that section of the West Bank, a future that they say will more closely bind the two sides of the river and become an engine for growth in a parish that’s otherwise all filled up. That effort includes a rebranding of the area, which has been renamed Fairfield, and a major push to get businesses to consider locating on the West Bank.

“I think if you look at Jefferson Parish as a whole, you quickly discover the fact that the east bank is totally built out,” said Jerry Bologna, executive director of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission. “Our real only opportunities for expansion and greenfield development lie on the West Bank.”

But for years, the possibility of that development was stymied by the treacherous bridge that connected the two banks.

Prior to the widening project, the Huey P. Long presented serious “physical and psychological barriers” that kept people away, Parish President John Young said.

“It’s such a hassle to go over that bridge and there’s a lot of fear factor for a lot of people,” said Young, who described the $1.2 billion widening project as “one of the most important capital works projects we’ll see in our lifetime.”

Crews began working on the bridge expansion project — the largest transportation project in state history — seven years ago. During that time, they added width to the existing lanes and added a new lane in each direction with the goal of easing both congestion and the nerve-wracking drive.

Increased traffic counts across the bridge show that even before the official opening, that project has had an impact, Bologna said.

“As more people get rid of the psychological barrier the previous bridge posed, I think that’s going to increase traffic as well,” Bolonga said.

That’s good for encouraging more commerce within the parish, said Councilman Paul Johnston, whose district includes Bridge City. Johnston said his wife made him drive every time it was necessary to cross the old bridge. Now, he’s hopeful the wider bridge will “bring an end to all that.”

“This new bridge is going to open up the West Bank to bigger and better things,” Johnston said.

Though the Huey P. Long was the first bridge to cross the river in the New Orleans area, and the only way to drive from one bank to the other without leaving Jefferson Parish, it never served to drive widespread economic development at its West Bank terminus.

While the bridge allowed continuous railroad traffic over the Mississippi, saving freight haulers from having to use barges to get their goods across the river, many continued to rely on the ferry system. That meant Gretna, seven miles and two bends of the river away from Bridge City, remained the center around which commerce and development grew on the parish’s West Bank.

Development then took a dramatic turn away from the West Bank altogether with the construction of Interstate 10 through Metairie. New projects sprung up along the new artery and spread from there.

Bridge City itself was established during the construction of the Huey P. Long, but development never spread far from the foot of the spans.

Officials are now banking on the undeveloped areas just beyond Bridge City to become the new center of development in the area.

That growth came as a number of projects, including the Churchill Technology and Business Park, the NOLA Motorsports Park and the JEDCO headquarters itself, have established anchors in the area.

“Knowing the project had commenced, that was the determining factor in us coming here,” Bolonga said.

The first step in the process has been the rebranding of the area as Fairfield. Spanning about 9,000 acres in south of the Westbank Expressway from U.S. 90 to Bayou Segnette, officials say the prospect of building in an undeveloped part of the parish is a significant incentive to developers.

To further encourage projects, the parish has conducted surveys to identify wetlands in the area, saving developers the cost and time involved in that process.

The first phase of that process is complete, meaning much of that land is now marked out and ready for development, said Councilman Mark Spears Jr., whose district includes the area.

Consultants and researchers at the University of New Orleans are also working on a master plan for the area, a contrast East Bank neighborhoods that sprung up without such a guiding document.

“We have a blank slate,” Young said.