Closed bridge creating headaches in Iberville

Iberville Parish officials say they are prepared to begin ferrying people, but not cars, as early as next week across the Intracoastal Waterway at the shutdown bridge on La. 77.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation closed the La. 77 bridge between Grosse Tete and Plaquemine last week after a barge slammed into it, severely damaging the structure.

The bridge is expected to be closed for repairs for up to three months and DOTD has urged drivers during that time to use an alternative route that takes them on a nearly 45-minute trek along La. 1 to reach the east side of the parish.

Iberville officials said Thursday they are looking at passenger ferry services as a quicker alternative for people traveling La. 77 during the time the bridge is closed.

DOTD officials say an average of 1,400 vehicles a day cross the bridge.

People transported across on a passenger ferry from the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway would participate in carpools, shuttles or other services to get to their ultimate destinations.

The detour route that has been in place since the bridge was closed has forced the Iberville Parish school district to re-configure some bus routes for students who live on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway.

“A lot of our students that attend Crescent Elementary live on the west side; those are the children that have been most inconvenienced by all of this,” Superintendent Ed Cancienne said Thursday. “We re-routed our whole transportation system and added two additional buses. We’ve also been dismissing the students early because of all the traffic that builds up along La. 1 around 3 p.m.”

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso said residents are frustrated, want a quicker alternative route and the parish feels an obligation to step up with a solution.

“We’ve made this a local issue,” Ourso said. “The state promised us they would have a boat available to us that could transfer our people across the waterway but we’re still waiting on that. There are no gas stations or grocery stores on (the west side) of the waterway in Gross Tete and we’ve heard the cries of the people who didn’t want us to wait around for the state to address this.”

Ourso said residents of his parish were hoping DOTD would provide traditional ferry service, which includes vehicles transportation as well, but said that option isn’t feasible because of the Intracoastal’s narrow size.

Instead, Ourso and Iberville Sheriff Brett Stassi have spearheaded preparations to ferry people — not cars — across the waterway by establishing twin boat landings on donated property between La. 3066 and Intercoastal Road in Crescent.

The only thing missing now is a boat from DOTD.

The boat landings have been established on land donated at no charge to the parish by A Wilbert’s Sons and Michael Vitale, with additional resources provided by Bayou Fabricators and Machine Works, Inc and the Verret Shipyard in Plaquemine.

“We all know this is a DOTD project but we just couldn’t wait around any longer,” Stassi said. “We’ve made everything available to (DOTD). We’re just waiting on a boat.”

DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said the state is in the process of trying to secure a 15-passenger vessel through a contractor. State officials are also awaiting insurance and bond clearance for the vessel, he added.

“We don’t have a boat so we’re doing the best we can,” Mallett said. “This is a unique situation. This is a process and we have to make sure everything is done properly.”

Mallett said later Thursday DOTD is working with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to procure a boat for the parish.

“We don’t have a time frame yet but we’re hoping to have everything done as soon as possible,” Mallett said

The sheriff said he’s willing to fast track the operation early next week by lending the parish one of his boats for use a passenger ferry.

“Since school started back up after the (Mardi Gras), we’ve already been ferrying some of the bus drivers to and from the westside so they can pick up their students a little faster,” Stassi said.

Should the parish end up having to use the sheriff’s boat, Ourso said Stassi would set the passenger ferry’s hours of operation. However, if DOTD delivers the boat it promised, state officials would determine the boat’s service times, Ourso said.

“I’m responsible for any liability on the east and west banks. These two docks will be managed and insured by the parish until the bridge is fixed,” Ourso said. “This is a great thing.”