Inside Report for Nov. 24, 2012

High cost dooms relief for bridge traffic

Nearly a decade ago the state spent $183,000 for a short-term fix to ease traffic jams for eastbound Interstate 10 traffic leaving the Mississippi River bridge. That may be it for another decade.

Sherri LeBas, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, announced on Nov. 9 that the state was dropping its latest bid to find a fix.

LeBas cited costs of the project, which could easily be $500 million at a time when the state already has a $12.1 billion backlog of road and bridge projects, and little relief on the way.

She also could have cited huge political problems associated with any push to widen Interstate 10 between the bridge and the I-10/12 split.

And so any thought of widening I-10 near the bridge takes its place along other remote ideas — building a loop tops that list — that are buried under financial and political problems. Yet how traffic flows now, for all of its problems, was not supposed to be permanent.

In 2003 state officials spent two weekends trying to ease backups.

They spent $183,000 on paint, signs and labor.

Officials crafted two full lanes off the bridge, which is used by nearly 86,000 vehicles per day.

One is headed for I-10 east — the point where a coast-to-coast highway narrows to a single lane. The other lane is headed to nearby Washington Street.

Workers also trimmed I-110 south downtown from three lanes to two near the 9th Street exit to the 9th Street on-ramp. They also narrowed I-110 south from three lanes to two near the westbound entry to the Mississippi River bridge. That meant there would be two lanes headed to the bridge, not one.

State transportation officials said eastbound traffic off the bridge got some relief at the expense of travelers on I-110 south traveling through downtown. However, downtown workers complained that the narrower I-110 south was difficult to get on.

Once on, they said, motorists have to zip across two lanes of traffic to avoid an unwanted trip across the bridge.

Meanwhile, eastbound traffic remains the site of nearly daily traffic backups, especially between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Much of the traffic leaving the bridge, for whatever reason, tries to wedge its way toward the center and left lane of I-10.

Motorists headed for the Washington Street exit are going the opposite direction, and usually into cars and trucks leaving the bridge.

Some simply stop their vehicles — a no-no on any interstate — put on their blinkers and wait for an opening to exit.

What that does is boost chances for a pileup, much like the infamous chain reaction over the Atchafalaya Basin years ago that sparked lower speed limits on that route.

LeBas originally hoped that a $1.2 million study would offer solutions for eastbound motorists leaving the bridge.

Now the focus, she said, will be on upgrading high-volume surface streets, which is what travelers seek when massive interstate backups cause them to bail off of I-10 or I-12.

Any significant injection of state highway aid appears at least three or four years away.

Even federal aid, long the lifeline for many high-profile projects, will be flat for the next few years.

For now, motorists headed east off the bridge will have to be content with a paint and sign job from 2003.

Will Sentell covers state transportation issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com.