Proposal connects BR to N.O.

Opinions vary among local and state officials whether or not a proposed “West Bank Connector” can get off the ground this legislative session.

Wilfred Barry, president of the SJB Group, a Baton Rouge design firm, is working with six parishes on a plan that would bring an “interstate-quality” highway connecting Port Allen with New Orleans on the west side of the Mississippi River.

The $1.656 billion project would run through West Baton Rouge, Iberville, Ascension, St. James, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes, connecting Interstate 10 west of Baton Rouge with I-310 north of New Orleans.

It also would include the construction of a new Mississippi River bridge in Iberville Parish between Plaquemine and White Castle on the west bank and just south of Baton Rouge on the east bank.

While many parish and municipal officials and state legislators are supportive of the concept of a west bank connection between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that can serve as an alternative route to I-10, they also have concerns about whether it’s a feasible project, especially considering its price tag.

“I support alternatives to I-10, which does not have the necessary capacity, especially during evacuations,” said state Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, who represents St. Charles and St. John the Baptist residents. “It is unlikely to get this project passed in this session, and finding funding for the project will be our greatest challenge.”

The state Legislature convenes April 8 for its 2013 regular session.

Barry hopes having local governments buy into the project will help show the Legislature that this is a project worth pursuing.

The Iberville Parish Council has approved allocating $150,000 for project startup costs, while the St. James Parish Council voted against committing $75,000 to the project. Barry asked for money from each of the six parishes to generate $500,000 for use of a two-year implementation plan and the hiring of a firm to execute that plan.

St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said his parish’s portion of the project — four-laning La. 3127 — is shovel-ready, but parish officials are leery of putting tolls on the Sunshine and Veterans Memorial bridges. He said they didn’t see a benefit to committing up-front money to the project.

The West Bank Connector has been needed “for a long time,” Barry said, and it has a number of practical impacts.

It would answer traffic problems on the west bank, provide a key evacuation route out of south Louisiana, provide a bypass around Baton Rouge, and open up thousands of acres along the Mississippi River for further development.

“The West Bank Connector project should definitely be a priority this 2013 legislative session due to the economic expansions planned throughout the River Parishes,” state Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, said. “Natural gas and chemical industry projects are expected to generate billions of dollars along with thousands of construction and permanent jobs in our short-term future. This will cause major traffic problems if we continue to neglect infrastructure in this most economically growing area of our state.”

Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said he was supportive of the project and hoped the other parishes would be as well. Ascension Parish spokesman Lester Kenyon said that while the Parish Council approved a resolution supporting the project, it hasn’t agreed to allocate any funds.

“There are still a lot of questions out there, but I still think it’s a very viable project,” Martinez said. “... It’s a great idea, but I’m not quite sure it will ever get funded, just like a lot of projects right now. There are some other good projects that will be competing for this money.”

One of the components to this project that Barry believes could help it be successful is its reliance on tolls. The new Mississippi River bridge in Iberville Parish, as well as the Sunshine and Veterans Memorial bridges, would feature tolls, and there would be intermittent tolls along the highway, he said.

In addition, the closure of the two West Baton Rouge Parish river ferries would generate an additional $6 million to $7 million per year, he said. From the tolls and the ferry closures, Barry said, approximately $150 million of the project’s price tag could be covered.

“The future is toll roads,” Barry said. “The future is pay-for-it-yourself.”

Two other state legislators — state Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, and state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Plaquemine — said the time to consider the West Bank Connector is now.

“From what I have seen and discussed, I believe the connector with the (La.) 3127 completion to four lanes will open development up on the entire west bank from St. Charles to Port Allen,” Smith said. “It will also provide a much-needed improved evacuation route to ease some of the traffic problem when trying to get our citizens out of harm’s way.”

“I think the only way we find out is if we have a feasibility study and have public hearings,” St. Germain said. “If not this now, then what and when? We are looking for solutions to a problem that has never been addressed. It’s beneficial to all who live on both sides of the river. We have been neglected too long.”

Barry said he’s not sure at what pace the West Bank Connector can be completed, though he said he’s hopeful it can be done within 15 years. However, he also said there are important pieces within the entire project — specifically the four-laning of La. 3125 and 3127 — that can feasibly be done quickly and won’t fall apart without the whole project being approved.

That said, he’s hopeful everyone will understand the importance the West Bank Connector can play in both infrastructure improvement and economic development for the region and will support the project.

“I just think the west bank has been long ignored,” Barry said.