Traffic problems defy quick solutions

Despite increased traffic and lane closures, sweeping changes on and near the Interstate 10 bridge in Baton Rouge are unlikely anytime soon because of political and financial hurdles, officials said.

Kam Movassaghi, former secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, noted that a $200 million plan to widen I-10 from the bridge to Essen Lane was gaining momentum in 2001 before local opposition killed the proposal.

“I think the political problem is the issue,” Movassaghi said. “I don’t think Baton Rouge has come together on how to address it.”

A variety of studies on bridge-related issues are underway or planned.

However, whatever comes of them is years away from becoming reality.

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, whose legislative district includes the community near the controversial Washington Street exit, said cities far bigger than Baton Rouge are able to move interstate traffic better and without turning a 2,460-mile coast-to-coast interstate down to one lane, which happens here.

“It is an embarrassment,” Dorsey-Colomb said.

DOTD officials reported on Aug. 11 that lane closures on and near the bridge rose by 50 percent during July, including lane closures, stalled vehicles and debris on the road.

Average daily traffic on the structure totaled 102,350 last year, a rise of 16 percent since 2010 and up 33 percent since 1998, according to DOTD figures.

Yet despite road and bridge improvements since 2008 — $540 million in East Baton Rouge Parish alone — traffic problems on and near the bridge remain a daily sore spot.

The last such push died in 2012, when DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas announced that the state was dropping plans to seek ways to widen I-10 between the bridge and the I-10/12 split.

LeBas noted at the time that any such plan was a “very expensive endeavor” and widening work set to cost about $200 million more than a decade ago would likely cost up to $300 million today in a state with a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

She said Friday the state is about to launch a $2 million feasibility study, including the roughly 4-mile corridor between the bridge and Essen Lane, to consider traffic flow, safety and noise walls and to hear what the community favors.

The review is set to take 18-24 months.

Gov. Bobby Jindal leaves office in 16 months.

“We all know that we have a bottleneck there,” LeBas said. “Expansion is not off the table.”

However, the issue poses political problems, not just financial.

Perkins Road business owners long have argued that expanding I-10 would destroy their livelihoods and damage one of the city’s most unique shopping and dining areas.

And efforts to close the Washington Street exit just east of the bridge, which experts say is needed to expand the corridor, also has triggered major opposition. “The people I represent are adamantly against it,” Dorsey-Colomb said.

Senate President Pro-Tem Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, echoed that view. “That would not be acceptable,” Broome said.

Kenneth A. Perret, a former top official of DOTD, said the state was “pretty close” to arriving at a solution around 2000 before local opposition killed it.

“It takes political will to come up with a solution that will work and can be funded,” said Perret, who is president of the Louisiana Good Roads & Transportation Association.

New Orleans has its own traffic chokepoints, including the I-10 High Rise Bridge over the Industrial Canal.

“The high rise bridge is a disaster,” said state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie. “In the evening and the morning it is a nightmare.”

Movassaghi, now a consultant who lives in Lafayette, said that city has nothing comparable to the road woes around the I-10 Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge.

The bridge also is notorious among truck drivers as the one spot where I-10 narrows to one lane between Santa Monica, California, and Jacksonville, Florida.

“Some kind of bypass in Baton Rouge has to be done,” he said. “I really think another bridge is needed.”

State Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, successfully sponsored legislation earlier this year to study the idea of building a new bridge across the Mississippi River, between the I-10 and Sunshine bridges.

The price tag is estimated at $800 million, and how it would be funded is one of several hurdles.

LeBas said she hopes to have that study done by February.

State Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, said a new bridge is needed, not short-term solutions, and he thinks tolls could be a part of any funding solution.

“You would have a lot of people in the greater Baton Rouge area willing to pay to get around and get where they need to go,” Greene said.

The U.S. 190 Mississippi River Bridge is undergoing $75 million in structural improvements, cleaning and painting.

State officials hope that new message boards planned for La. 1 northbound will encourage motorists headed to Baker, Zachary and other cities to use it to trim volume on the I-10 bridge.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.