Long awaited La. 42 work to begin soon

One of state Rep. Eddie J. Lambert’s first campaign promises when he took office 10 years ago was to widen a key stretch of La. 42 in fast-growing Ascension Parish.

Last week, state highway officials announced a date for dirt to start moving.

“It’s a long time coming,” said Lambert, R-Prairieville.

No later than Feb. 23, work will start on utility relocations, new sewer line installation and land clearing to create the path for the future four-lane, divided highway, state highway officials said.

The curving, two-lane highway with open ditches on both the sides runs through the parish’s northern edge near East Baton Rouge Parish and is a vital, but regularly clogged, artery across the suburban hot zone.

Even in 2004, Lambert’s promise reflected an already long-sought wish of area officials.

An August 1994 crash in a curvy section of La. 42 killed three teens and galvanized some residents to push to widen the road to four lanes. Parish President Tommy Martinez, who was in the same post at that time, said he testified before Congress about the highway’s dangers, efforts that resulted in congressional appropriation for a $250,000 study. Early parish plans from that period called for an $8 million construction project that would take no more than eight years, The Advocate reported.

“J. Bennett Johnston was senator then,” Martinez said, “so that’s how long ago it was.”

With such official consensus, the promise to widen La. 42 became, like yard signs, popular in parish government and state legislative election campaigns.

With only incremental progress made, though, through another study finished or some dab of funding pocketed for a project later estimated to cost in the tens of millions of dollars, the oft-repeated promise had come to be viewed with some skepticism, as well as hope, as years passed.

Wharton-Smith Inc. beat two other firms to handle the $8.7 million phase after an Oct. 23 bidding, state highway records say.

The state Department of Transportation and Development plans to widen a 3.7-mile stretch of La. 42 between U.S. 61 and Woodhaven Drive, just east of La. 44.

La. 42 also will have a 6-foot-wide sidewalk on its north side and a 10-foot-wide path for walkers and bicyclists on the south side, DOTD officials said.

The highway also will have J-turns to control where drivers can make left turns across both directions of traffic.

Dustin Annison, a DOTD spokesman, said road construction is estimated to cost another $20 million to $30 million.

He said the construction phase is fully funded through state capital outlay dollars and is expected to go before the state Bond Commission in the summer. With approval, the project would go to bid in July.

DOTD officials plan to issue the notice to proceed for the land-clearing phase Friday.

Annison said the notice means Wharton-Smith can start assembling equipment and has 30 days to start work, expected to last 10 months.

The road construction will take another 14 months afterward for a total of two years for the whole project.

Robert Schexnailder Jr., 50, who helps run his family’s business, Oak Grove Smokehouse, just north of La. 42 on Jefferson Highway, said he has been hearing talk of widening La. 42 probably for 15 to 20 years.

His family owns about 200 acres of pasture along La. 42 near Jefferson, where about 30 head of cattle still graze. Schexnailder said last week that he expects to hear from DOTD about moving his fences soon. He said it is time for the project to start but he is not looking forward to the traffic tie-ups to come.

“I think when they finish, it’s going to be so much better,” Schexnailder said.

Damian Sheets, manager of the LeBlanc’s Food Store farther east on La. 42, said he expects the coming traffic backups will hurt business in the short term.

Sheets, who also lives off La. 42, said he also is uncertain how well J-turns will work but feels La. 42’s widening will be good for business in the end.

“I think it will be positive because this traffic down where we are on (La.) 42 is pretty rough,” he said.

To prepare for the coming work, DOTD is spending $17.9 million for additional rights-of-way. Annison said all but six parcels have been bought and those pieces are expected to be purchased within three to four months.

In the path of the new highway are several live oaks, including the registered Thompson Oak near Cully Broussard Road. The trees will be removed, plans say.

The highway has required the purchase of property in front of a church graveyard, a home on the National Register of Historic Places and a parish park, and the buyout of about a dozen homes and businesses, an environmental assessment says.

Ascension Parish government is contributing $5.9 million to install new sewer lines along La. 42.

Ascension Parish government must install the lines because state health and safety rules do not allow partially treated sewer effluent to flow into underground drainage planned along La. 42. Sewer effluent currently goes into open ditches.

The sewer lines will cost $2.5 million more than initially expected, parish officials said, after a right-of-way hang-up forced a sewer redesign. Parish Councilman Chris Loar said the parish had to put up the money to keep the project going.

“Because of the serious competition for the state’s stretched road budget, if we let this be delayed yet again,” he said, “there was the possibility we might never get this project funded.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, to correct how long road construction is expected to take and the highway on which a fatal crash occurred in 1994.