A state Department of Transportation and Development project to reduce a four-lane section of La. 31 through St. Martinville down to three has not been warmly received by St. Martin Parish officials, who say they didn’t learn of the changes until after the contract for the work had been signed.
“Our biggest contention was, No. 1, how can you do this without talking to us,” said Mike Fuselier, a St. Martinville city councilman and the mayor pro tem.
DOTD officials, though acknowledging the need for better communication, argue the project is to address safety issues on the 2.2-mile stretch of highway.
Still, the pushback might prompt the state to put the project on hold.
State Sen. Fred Mills Jr., R-Parks, said he learned from DOTD officials Monday that the agency planned more extensive community outreach before moving forward.
“Everybody is hitting the pause button now,” Mills said. “We’ve got to just start from scratch and visit with the community.”
A public meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 9 at St. Martinville City Hall, DOTD spokeswoman Deidra Druilhet said.
The stretch of highway in dispute runs from roughly the downtown area of St. Martinville north to the city limits.
Druilhet said taking the road down from four lanes to three — two travel lanes plus a turning lane — is expected to reduce the number of crashes by 55 percent.
“A lot of these four-lane highways have a history of high crash rates,” she said.
Lane changes are a major culprit, she said, as well as the conflicts between people traveling fast in the left lane running into vehicles stopped in the left lane to turn.
“There is not a protected lane for them to get into to make a left (turn),” she said.
The changes in St. Martinville are in line with so-called “road diets” DOTD is exploring in other areas where traffic counts are not high enough to justify a four-lane highway.
Druilhet said a traffic safety study found 80 crashes on a portion of the four-lane through St. Martinville from 2011 to 2013.
St. Martinville officials dispute those figures and worry about increased traffic, but Fuselier said the bigger issue is that DOTD never approached city officials about the project, which the councilman said he learned about secondhand.
“This is our main street,” he said.
Druilhet said DOTD officials “regret not informing the local community.”
“We will review our communication process to make sure the appropriate entities are informed about projects,” she said.
The reduction of the highway from four to three lanes is being done by simply restriping the lanes and is part of a larger $775,000 project to resurface the highway.
Druilhet said if the lane reduction goes forward, DOTD could easily convert the road back to four lanes if future studies find no significant crash reductions.
“If we get out there and we are monitoring the traffic and we are not producing the results expected, it’s an easy fix,” she said.