Plan would place toll road around Baton Rouge

Despite massive hurdles, Baton Rouge-area state lawmakers are trying to launch a toll road around Baton Rouge that would ease traffic tie-ups without taking countless years to build.

“We believe we can make it work, which is why this project is attractive to us,” said state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, and one of the leaders of the effort.

Insiders dub the plan BUMP — Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan. Supporters call it an “inner loop” that would connect interstates 10, 12, 110, U.S. 61 and U.S. 190.

The initial phase envisions a new four-lane corridor on Airline Highway from near Airline and Interstate 12 to U.S. 190 and the old Mississippi River bridge.

Motorists could go 70 miles per hour on an interstate-style surface, backers say, and one that could be operational in as little as five years.

In addition, a new four-lane road, roughly 3 miles long, would be erected between a site just west of the bridge to Interstate 10, 3 to 5 miles west of La. 415.

“As you know, one of the biggest problems we have is wrecks on the interstate,” Foil said. “It shuts down Baton Rouge.

“This will give people another way around Baton Rouge if there is wreck on the bridge or in the downtown area,” he said.

“Hopefully it would get a lot of trucks from going through the middle of town because they will have a way to get around,” Foil said.

However, the effort faces huge financial and political obstacles.

The initial price tag is unclear.

Estimates range from $700 million to $1 billion.

The undertaking also hinges on finding a private firm willing to enter into a public-private partnership, build the road, then rely on tolls to repay the costs, plus a profit.

Finding a private company to do the work may be a daunting task, especially because no such mega projects have been erected that way in Louisiana.

“Obviously, if we could not get a private contractor, it would be hard to get this project moving because of the price tag,” Foil said.

Asked if the plan is realistic, state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, said, “That is why we hire professionals to determine whether it is feasible. But we have to do something about the traffic situation.”

Political hurdles also loom.

The Capitol Region Legislative Delegation, which includes 30 House and Senate members from nine area parishes, convinced Gov. Bobby Jindal to request $3.5 million in his capital outlay budget to review the idea.

If that request clears the Legislature, an evaluation would be launched, including issues such as costs, how much tolls would account for and details of the high-speed roadway on Airline Highway.

Sherri LeBas, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said any such review would take 18 to 24 months.

LeBas said the proposal was one of 102 mega-project presentations recently made to state officials for possible inclusion on the state’s list of priorities.

They are then rated A, B, C and D on a priority list, and LeBas said those with the top ratings have gotten traction in the past.

“We have done a lot of the projects that were on the priority A and quite a few on priority B,” she said.

No decision has been made on where the delegation’s toll road plan will end up.

One of the presenters was Baton Rouge engineer Bob Schmidt, whom Foil said has advised the delegation on hammering out the proposal.

The plan also could get a lukewarm reception from city-parish government, which has pushed various forms of a loop around Baton Rouge for years.

That effort, which has sparked disagreements among area lawmakers, has run into financial and political problems of its own.

Backers of a full-scale loop may view it as a threat to any chance, however remote, that it will ever become reality.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden and a former state legislator, did not return calls seeking comment.

The delegation’s proposal calls for $600,000 in matching funds from East and West Baton Rouge parishes, aside from the state dollars.

State Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, said the proposal could complement both the earlier loop plans and aid long-standing businesses along Airline.

Foil and others contend there are compelling reasons for the plan.

He said he thinks motorists would be willing to pay tolls for the time savings and trucking firms would, too, to trim travel time through Baton Rouge.

Little property acquisition would be needed along Airline Highway and elsewhere, he said.

About 54,000 vehicles travel daily on Airline just north of the Airline/Florida Boulevard interchange, according to the state Department of Transportation and Development.

About 64,000 travel on Airline each day just south of Old Hammond Highway.

Backers also noted that the old Mississippi River bridge — opened in 1940 — is already in place, undergoing a $100 million paint job and underutilized.

Average daily traffic on the old bridge is 29,000 vehicles, compared to 86,000 per day on the new bridge.

Asked if a toll road would work, Jindal said: “Let’s see what the study says. My position on tolls has always been it needs to be new capacity, you shouldn’t toll existing capacity, there should be a free alternative so it’s not the only way to go and there needs to have the support of the local community.”

Backers said the revamped Airline Highway would include roads adjacent to the new high-speed corridor that would not charge tolls.

The delegation’s long-term plan also envisions extending the upgraded roadway on Airline Highway south of I-12 to Gonzales and I-10 and U.S. 190/Florida Boulevard toward Livingston Parish.