Easy solution not likely for I-10 stretch
by will sentell
Capitol news bureau
January 11, 2013
The last time the state was seriously looking at revamping Interstate 10 between the Mississippi River Bridge and Essen Lane was 11 years ago.
Bobby Simpson was mayor-president of East Baton Rouge.
William Daniel, who is now Mayor Kip Holden’s chief administrative officer, was a state lawmaker involved in the fray.
And 9/11 was still eight months away.
Heavy opposition from merchants in the Perkins Road overpass area, and elsewhere, killed the $200 million widening plan then.
Sherri LeBas, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said in November that the issue needed to be reopened. “I hope we can come up with some innovative solution,” LeBas said at the time. Officials said meetings to get public input could begin in spring 2012, which did not happen.
LeBas said last month that she hopes to begin holding public meetings later this year or early 2013 on options for the four-mile corridor, which is the site of near-daily traffic tie-ups.
She said the need for traffic data is one reason for the slowdown.
Left unsaid is the fact that finding a solution is as much a political problem as it is a traffic problem. Veteran business owners remain skeptical of any new state push to widen Interstate 10, which they say would wreck one of the most distinctive neighborhoods in Baton Rouge, and their livelihoods.
Residents of the Washington Street area, many of whom opposed the earlier effort, contend any widening would devastate their neighborhoods. LeBas is aware of all of that, which is why she plans to reach out to community groups along the corridor, legislators and others to try prevent a wall of opposition.
And even if there is agreement on how to improve traffic paying for it is another huge hurdle. Federal aid for state road projects, the lifeline of high-profile improvements, is flat at best and expected to remain that way.
Long-shot efforts to raise more state tax dollars for road improvements have died in the Legislature with little fanfare. Any sort of gasoline tax hike is unlikely.
Other major road projects in the Baton Rouge area may well be finished before any public discussions are even launched on the bridge to Essen Lane problem.
The state just finished adding new lanes in each direction on I-12 between O’Neal Lane and Juban Road, which cost $146 million. The widening of I-10 between the I-10/12 split and Siegen Lane may be finished by the end of the year. Adding new lanes in each direction between Siegen Lane and Highland Road is set for completion by mid-2013.
LeBas hopes that when motorists see the benefits of that work, it will boost chances for finding ways to ease backups between the Mississippi River bridge and Essen Lane.
The impasse is starting to resemble efforts to widen Airline Highway, which bobbed around for years before officials found a solution.
The length of that project was nearly the same as the I-10 corridor — 3.7 miles.
It too sparked heated opposition from nearby residents, many of whom said they would lose their homes in the name of progress. The state finally arrived at a $17 million solution, which was finished in 2006.
Airline Highway, which opened in 1939, used to be the site of daily backups and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Now traffic usually moves in both directions, and a key artery that motorists tried to avoid is a viable, north-south option.
A similar solution may well be found for the stretch from the bridge to Essen Lane.
Yet all signs suggest it will be later, not sooner.
Will Sentell covers state transportation issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com.