The East Baton Rouge Parish Mississippi River levee bike and walking path is a half-finished puzzle with two segments of the path completed along the riverfront that are separated by a 6.6-mile gap.

But plans for the path are still underway, and city-parish officials estimate construction for the most crucial segments of the path will begin this year, creating a contiguous 12.5-mile path that could be finished by next year.

The goal is to have a bike path stretching from downtown, beginning at Hollywood Casino, and continuing south along the Mississippi River to the southern border of the parish, just past L’Auberge Casino and Hotel.

Authors of the regional master plan envisioned the path ultimately going to New Orleans.

Despite the gap, the levee bike path has transformed East Baton Rouge, highlighting the parish’s assets along the Mississippi River, said Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District.

“River Road itself is such an important historic road,” he said. “It also happens to be the site of major attractions, including the Old State Capitol, Louisiana Arts and Science Museum, the USS Kidd and the River Center.”

Baton Rouge kicked off its levee project in 2004. The first section of the levee bike path is the one that is most visible and frequently used. It goes from Lafayette Street downtown to LSU at Skip Bertman Drive. It has lights, benches and water fountains and is 15 feet wide. The first phase was finished in 2006 and cost about $2.2 million.

It was extended south another 9,500 feet to BREC’s Farr Horse Activity Center, which is about a half a mile south of Brightside Lane, in 2010 at a cost of about $1.3 million.

Those two phases make up just short of four miles of pathway.

Then there is a 6.6 mile gap of unfinished path between BREC’s Farr Park and Ben Hur Road before there is another section of path completed from Ben Hur Road to L’auberge Casino, which was finished at the end of 2014. That section is about 1.3 miles.

Bryan Harmon, interim Public Works director for the city-parish, said the reason the sections were built out of order is because the middle portion is funded with federal funds, which is a slower process than if the funds are local or from state money.

The L’Auberge component was funded with a state grant that was at risk of expiring in 2014, so the city-parish moved quickly toward construction.

Work on the levee from Farr Park to Ben Hur is in the design phase. The bid process to choose a construction company will likely start in September, Harmon said. The phase received about $1 million in federal funding. A local match will come from the city-parish road improvements dedicated half-cent tax, a portion of which is designated for beautification projects.

But only the first phase connecting LSU to downtown will have the benefit of lighting.

Harmon said that since Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won’t allow lighting along the levee for fear the electrical poles drilled into the ground could weaken the levee, which is designed to protect the cities from rising river waters.

“They’re afraid they could be potential leak points,” Harmon said.

He also said there’s a concern that lighting the path could give cyclists a “false sense of security” by giving the appearance they are encouraging biking on the levee at nighttime.

“It’s not that it’s not safe, but it’s not patrolled,” Harmon said.

A bike lane is also being striped on River Road from Lafayette Street to Hollywood Casino. It will connect to the levee path at Florida Street, but since the levee runs out, the bike path was redirected to the street.

A federal grant will pay for a tree-lined walkway on the other side of the street that was approved last week by the Metro Council.

The only unfunded piece of the puzzle is the three-mile stretch from L’Auberge Casino to the parish line.

Ultimately, that piece will become important as the rest of the parishes between East Baton Rouge and Orleans move forward with their own regional bike paths. Orleans and Jefferson Parish both have bike paths in place.

Beaux Jones, president of Bike Baton Rouge, said the regional connectivity will make Baton Rouge a “fitness and recreation destination.”

“Extending the levee path to the parish line will be a huge statement by East Baton Rouge Parish regarding the future of the Mississippi River trail,” he said. “EBR would be saying, ‘We have done our honest best, now Iberville, Ascension, St. John, St. James need to follow suit.’ ”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.

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