Growth outpacing road grid

A 5-year-old improperly restrained in his car seat died Monday in a crash on a curvy section of La. 44 near Burnside that residents say has racked up numerous traffic accidents recently.

A six-vehicle pileup along the busy industrial corridor of La. 30 Tuesday blocked a major state highway intersection for more than four hours during high-volume morning traffic hours and resulted in several injuries.

The back-to-back major accidents and another less-serious wreck Monday at the same Burnside location hours after the fatal crash on La. 44 has called attention once more to Ascension Parish’s road troubles.

Parish officials readily admit they have a major transportation problem that must be addressed sooner rather than later.

The road grid blends parish roads with rural, two-lane state highways and is ill-equipped, officials said, to handle Ascension’s growing population. Between 2000 and 2011, the parish population increased 43.5 percent to 109,985, the latest census estimates show.

While La. 44 and the fact it was once eyed for expansion to four lanes have drawn attention following Monday’s fatality, parish officials cite a laundry list of parish and state highways they deem dangerous.

Some are major state thoroughfares — La. 621, which funnels traffic from Interstate 10 to Airline Highway; La. 42, which runs from Airline Highway to Port Vincent; La. 73, connecting La. 30 with Airline Highway; and La. 44, which connects La. 42 to the Mississippi River.

Others are high-traffic, but often narrow parish roads with ditches that serve as busy cut-through routes between the major corridors: Cannon, Churchpoint, Roddy and Swamp are some examples.

“There’s a lot of needs,” Parish President Tommy Martinez said. “We could go on all day.”

Safety improvements have been completed in recent years with funds coming from the existing tax base, such as in the two-lane Roddy Road/Joe Severio Road corridor.

A series of projects by the parish and Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development widened existing lanes, improved guardrails and bridges, added a four-way stop intersection and lowered the speed limit on parts of the key north-south corridor.

As part of that work, the parish took over a newly improved 2.2-mile section of Joe Severio, the former La. 932.

DOTD also spent $65.4 million on improvements to 130 miles of roads and bridges in Ascension during the past five years, said Lauren Lee, DOTD spokeswoman.

A $15.5 million project to widen two-lane La. 73 to three lanes is under construction. A $9.1 million project to resurface Airline Highway between Gonzales and Sorrento is nearly finished, Lee said. The project included improving or eliminating crossovers on the divided highway that caused dangerous back-ups of high-speed traffic.

Construction bids will be accepted in the fall on the long-awaited, long-debated 3.7-mile project to widen two-lane La. 42 to four and five lanes between Airline and La. 44.

But recent moves by the parish to more broadly address the long-standing problems have not gotten off the ground.

The Parish Council proposed a 20-year, half-cent sales tax to fund transportation improvements. Voters defeated it soundly in November. The plan would have leveraged new sales tax revenue with state and federal dollars to improve major intersections — both on parish roads and state highways.

“That plan was comprehensive,” said Ben Laurie, the parish’s chief engineer. “It looked at the entire network.”

The Parish Council sought legislation last year to have a version of the “quick take” authority that DOTD uses to buy rights of way in an expedited fashion.

In the past, the parish has faced protracted negotiations for rights of way that have slowed projects.

The bill failed after generating opposition from some council members, the Ascension Parish Republican Party Executive Committee and a state landowner’s group, who argued the bill gave the parish too strong a hand in acquiring private property.

Without the influx of cash expected from the sales tax plan, parish officials said they are trying to find ways with existing revenue, a more assertive pursuit of federal dollars through the regional Metropolitan Planing Organization and grants to improve roads.

The parish has nearly $95 million in projects listed in the first stage of the MPO’s transportation plan while long-term plans call for $500 million in projects.

“Any time a person loses a life, it’s a great concern to me and everyone in the parish, especially when you lose 5-year-old children,” Martinez said.

“It’s very upsetting, but we’re gonna do all we can do to make it safe for citizens.”

Walt Hull has lived for more than five years on La. 44 near the site of Monday’s fatal wreck. He said traffic in the area has “gotten exceedingly worse.”

“It’s absurd. We literally have accidents out there all the time,” Hull said.

When 5-year-old Makell Andrews, of Sorrento, died in Hull’s front yard Monday, though, that’s “what really put me over the top,” Hull said.

DOTD officials responded the next morning by having workers erect 22 warning signs about two dangerous curves between Loosemore Road and the Panama Canal.

Hull, however, said that response came too late and the real reason for danger wasn’t addressed. The real problem, he said, is that the speed limit of 55 mph is too high.

“It’s just too fast,” he said. “It’s a narrow road with no shoulder, and when you’re gone, you’re gone.”

Parish officials recently submitted a grant application to improve striping and add signs around problem curves on parish roads only, Laurie said.

The application applied parishwide data collected by the Louisiana Transportation Research Center between 2007 and 2011, showing the number and location of accidents where vehicles went off the road, Laurie said.

Numerous so called “road departures” can be found on Norwood Road in Galvez, Churchpoint and Cannon near Gonzales, along Duplessis and Germany roads and at La. 929 near Airline, a parish map shows.

The data does not show any road departures where the crash occurred on Monday on La. 44, though it shows two south of there near Pelican Point.

A DOTD corridor review of the La. 44 area in Burnside last year confirmed the validity of the 55 mph speed limit, Lee said. The review came in response to a developer’s traffic mitigation plan.

The 55 mph speed limit signs went up in the fall, she said.

In addition to the new warning signs put up Tuesday after the fatality, DOTD started a road safety assessment of the La. 44 area, officials said.

Nearly a year ago, on Feb. 21, a similar wave of media attention and DOTD scrutiny emerged after the wrenching drowning deaths of 7- and 9-year-old girls.

The car in which they were riding went off Stringer Bridge Road in St. Amant and plunged into Black Bayou. Their mother, who was driving, and two other children escaped from the sinking vehicle aided by the heroic efforts of bystanders.

The nighttime, single-vehicle crash and previous crashes into the bayou prompted citizens to petition DOTD to add guardrails on Stringer Bridge. Part of the road hugs closely the banks of Black Bayou, leaving little to no shoulder.

The safety assessment initiated at that time for Stringer Bridge Road, also known as La. 935, remains under way, but Lee said short-term improvements are in place or planned.

Reflective tape has been placed on curve-warning sign posts. This summer, DOTD plans to install center-line rumble strips and raised pavement markers and to add reflective striping along the road sides.

Lee said, however, that guardrails are not feasible in the short-term because the highway’s shoulders would have to be widened. One of four alternatives for the long-term improvements DOTD still has under review recommends guardrails, Lee said.

A final report is expected in the summer, Lee said, after which a timeline for making improvements will be developed.

“The safety of the traveling public is the number one priority at DOTD,” she said.

Councilwoman Teri Casso, a member of the council’s Transportation Committee, said she is sickened by fatal traffic accidents.

She said parish officials know improvements must be made, but they cannot get the job done without residents’ willingness to increase revenue to pay for such road improvements.

“The fear that I have is that’s going to be the problem going forward,” Casso said. “I just don’t know how we solve this problem without the public’s support.”

Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, a critic of the failed sales tax-supported transportation plan, said “no one denies the existence of a problem,” but added that he hopes parish and DOTD officials don’t offer a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“The failure of the tax, I think, was one where people said the plan the parish is presenting wasn’t one that would make a meaningful change,” he said.

Arguing the plan focused on intersections, Satterlee asserts the plan didn’t address roads that need to be widened or shoulders that need to be added to move traffic through the parish more safely.

“People are saying to me, not this idea that we don’t want the roads fixed, but we just want you to do it with existing resources and with a better plan,” Satterlee said.