New bridge backers seek traction

An ambitious transportation study plan is winding through the Louisiana Legislature: whether a new bridge across the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge is feasible despite financing questions and other obstacles.

The proposal, known as the West Bank Connector, is the subject of legislation calling for a review of the idea by the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The measure, House Concurrent Resolution 100, has breezed through the state House and Senate without dissent. In addition, $1.65 million to finance the assessment is in the House-passed capital improvements bill, which is awaiting Senate action.

However, the complex rules of how a feasibility study is financed, aside from other hurdles, mean nothing is imminent.

“We could possibly start the study in August 2015,” said Sherri LeBas, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The idea of a new bridge and upgrades to roads on the west bank of the Mississippi River has been tossed around for decades.

The latest proposal, which carries a price tag of $1.65 billion, includes a new bridge that would connect La. 1 and La. 30.

Possible connecting sites on the west bank include spots between Brusly and Addis, south of Addis, and south of Plaquemine but north of St. Gabriel.

A four-lane highway between Interstate 10 near Port Allen and I-310 just west of New Orleans is part of the plan, too.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, sponsor of the resolution, said the bridge and highway overhaul would carry economic and other benefits.

A new bridge, which would cost around $800 million, would reduce traffic on the Interstate 10 bridge in Baton Rouge that is the site of daily backups and congestion that often extends through Baton Rouge on I-10, Interstate 12 and Interstate 110.

St. Germain said the growth of industrial plants like Dow, Shintech and others has made traffic woes worse. “The problem comes from the new additions to the plants and all the employees that have to cross the river,” she said.

“They can get to the plant OK, but going home takes them from an hour to an hour and a half, and that is a good day,” St. Germain said.

“If this was open, it would be 20 minutes to where they live,” she said.

St. Germain said key plant officials have quit because of commuting problems.

LeBas said the need for a new bridge is evident.

“I believe that a new crossing over the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and the Sunshine Bridge is needed, and I believe it would relieve the traffic along the I-10 crossing in the Baton Rouge area,” she said.

But, like any mega road and bridge proposal, how to pay for it overshadows any discussion of the proposal.

“It would be a ways off, definitely,” LeBas said. “There are a number of steps.”

Louisiana already faces a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, not including proposals like the West Bank Connector and an equally ambitious plan to launch a toll road around Baton Rouge that would connect interstates 10, 12 and 110 and U.S. 61 and U.S. 190.

Cost estimates for that plan range from $700 million to $1 billion.

In the Legislature, efforts to boost funding for highways have died for years.

Federal highway aid, which often supplies 90 percent of the costs, is so uncertain that states are unsure about future funding.

Backers of the West Bank Connector emphasize that it is separate from efforts to build a loop around Baton Rouge.

However, loop backers may see the plan as another threat to the loop, which is already beset by financing and other problems.

LeBas said it is premature to talk about how a new bridge and road improvements would be financed.

St. Germain cited tolls. “It is the only way we could build a bridge,” she said.

The idea of a new bridge and four-lane highway between I-310 and Port Allen has been trumpeted as an economic development tool by officials in the six most affected parishes — West Baton Rouge, Iberville, Ascension, St. James, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist.

“There is nobody that I have spoken to that is not on board,” St. Germain said.

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