Capitol access more difficult as security project begins

Parking and access at the State Capitol — one of Louisiana’s most visited sites — is about to become more difficult, as work begins on a massive project to improve security around the 34-story seat of government.

“We are the most visited Capitol in the United States. Tens of thousands of school-age children come up there,” said state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, who has been a leader in homeland security issues. “It’s a big exposure, and there is a definite need.”

The $4.37 million project will take part of the parking lot in front of the Capitol building to create a pedestrian plaza between the foot of the steps that have the names of states chiseled on them and the sunken formal garden. Four security posts will be installed, and parking will be controlled around the building for much of the year.

Eventually, the number of parking spaces will increase slightly, but vehicles will be routed further away from the building.

The upgrade is expected to be completed by March 22, a few weeks before the April 13 start of the 2015 legislative session.

“It increases security around the Capitol Park. It will improve traffic flow. It will be a more pedestrian-friendly campus, once the project is completed,” said State Office of Facility Planning Director Mark Moses. “It’s a project, at the end of the day, that makes everything better.”

Work on the project, which has been talked about for years, began this week after funding finally became available.

The structure was built between 1930 and 1932 by Huey Long at a cost of about $5 million. “As of 1930, it was a symbol of the continuity of the political domination of Louisiana’s traditional social and economic elite over the State’s fortunes,” according to the 1978 nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places.

Long, as a U.S. senator, was shot in September 1935 while walking the building’s halls and died from his wounds two days later. The location of the shooting outside the House speaker’s office — along with the art deco legislative chambers, Memorial Hall decked with flags, statutes and murals, and the observation deck with a panoramic view of the area — are the main places visited each year by thousands of tourists and schoolchildren.

Visitors also seek out a pencil stuck in the ceiling of the Senate chamber from an April 1970 bombing.

In recent years, X-ray machines have been added to scan visitors’ belongings. But concerns have remained about the ease with which someone could pull up next to the building with a truckload of explosives.

Deliveries will no longer be allowed under the back door portico near the governor’s parking space.

Instead, packages will be delivered at a tunnel, which stretches about 100 yards, beneath two parking lots into the basement of the Capitol building. A police command station is being built at the entrance of the tunnel.

“That was the weakest link in this whole (security) thing since 9/11,” said Facility Planning project overseer Tom Coleman. “This is overdue.”

Most visitors will be impacted by changes to the approach from Interstate 110, past the Governor’s Mansion. Today, vehicles drive on a road along the banks of Capitol Lake, around a park that has the Arsenal built in 1838 when the grounds were part of a federal military post. Motorists can make the one-way loop all the way around the Arsenal grounds, passing alongside the Capitol building, and back to the Governor’s Mansion.

Under the new security plan, the loop can no longer be made. A barrier will be erected stopping vehicles from passing along the east side of the Capitol.

“The Arsenal (road) becomes two-way traffic,” Moses said.

Traffic will be routed along the back of the Capitol complex, past the tunnel, to Third Street.

The approach from the front will be along Fifth Street, past the site of the old Insurance Building, then connecting with the south side of the road now looping around Arsenal Park.

Moses said security stations will be on the northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest corners to police parking restrictions and help with traffic control.

“The stations will be manned as deemed necessary by the Legislature,” Moses said. “Electronic controlled access to restricted lots could also be available. These are operational issues/decisions of the Legislature.”

The plaza in front of the Capitol will include removable bollards, which are vertical barriers designed to stop the passage of vehicles. On either side of the plaza, there will continue to be parking with a turnaround to allow for traffic flow.

For legislative sessions, the plaza area will become parking once again with the bollards removed.

Moses said the entire project will add 28 parking spaces around the Capitol, with the number rising from 445 to 473.