PRAIRIEVILLE — Construction of a $27.5 million expansion of La. 42 in Ascension Parish started Monday and is expected to take more than two years to build as Gov. John Bel Edwards and a host of state and parish officials marked the project's long-awaited beginning in a ceremony Thursday.

Once the project is completed in spring 2020, the widening of nearly four miles of La. 42 through the heart of Ascension's suburbanizing northern swath will have taken more that five years to finish after delays in funding and earlier phases of work primarily related to the lack of a parish sewer system.

The state Department of Transportation and Development plans to convert the two-lane highway in Prairieville into a four-lane divided route between U.S. 61 and Woodhaven Drive, just east of La. 44.

The day marked an important moment for local officials and residents who began lobbying to widen La. 42 more than two decades ago. An August 1994 fatal crash on an S-curve in the highway took the lives of three teenagers and prompted an often halting push to fund the expansion through successive parish, highway and gubernatorial administrations.

"I don't think anyone really has a clue what this means to me. My heart is full," said Loretta Templet, 60, whose 18-year-old daughter, Mandy Acosta; nephew, Brett Leggette, and his friend, Brett Frederic, were killed on La. 42 more than 23 years ago.

Brett Leggette's mother, Miriam Leggette LaCroix, stood by Templet, her sister, as she spoke Thursday during the ceremony at Istrouma Baptist Church on La. 42, the same place Templet learned of her daughter's death.

Parish President Kenny Matassa, who inherited the project from former Parish President Tommy Martinez and other past parish leaders, was brought to tears Thursday when he mentioned the children's deaths.   

The ceremony Thursday was actually the second one to mark the planned start of La. 42.

The first was held in March 2014, and when land clearing began, DOTD officials expected the La. 42 project, then hailed as a "long day coming," would be built by the summer of 2016.

But before road construction could start, contractors had to deal with the lack of a parish sewer system. They were required by state environmental and federal funding rules to install new sewer lines and find treatment systems to handle partially treated wastewater from businesses and homes along the highway that had previously discharged into open ditches. The work has taken nearly three years to complete.

The new, wider La. 42 will have enclosed pipes for rainfall runoff, which aren't allowed to handle sewer wastewater as the open ditches are. 

Department of Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson said Thursday that two-lane La. 42 is used by 24,000 vehicles per day but that number is expected to increase to 37,000 vehicles per day by 2034. The wider highway will improve congestion on La. 42, an important commuter route and pathway to Mississippi River plants and businesses for Livingston and other nearby parishes.

Wilson said the new, wider highway will comply with the state's "Complete Streets" policy, meaning it will have 6-foot-wide sidewalks and 10-foot-wide bike lanes. The highway will also have J-turns and special turnaround areas for large trucks.

Wilson and Edwards pointed to the need for more funding to do more projects like La. 42 that add new lanes or other ways to handle more traffic volume.

"We are so resource constrained that in the program going forward, we’re going to be looking at operations, preservation and maintenance expenditures. That doesn't mean we don't have capacity issues. We certainly do. We need new lanes, we need new bridges all across the state of Louisiana, especially in the southern part of our state and nowhere more so than right here in Ascension Parish," Edwards said.

The state widening of La. 73 in Prairieville a few years earlier ran into lengthy delays over the same sewer issues as La. 42's. State officials tried to time the phases of La. 42 differently to speed it up, but not until mid-May did parish officials announce that the sewer phase of the La. 42 project was just about finished. DOTD opened bids for La. 42's construction the following month. 

Wilson said Thursday the time that it has taken to move La. 42 along is simply the "natural process" for a road project, whether land clearing or sewer work, and the length of that process can vary with each project.

"It just takes time," he said.  

For LaCroix and Templet, the wait to see La. 42 expanded has been worth it, they said.

"When the old road is broken, I'll be able to look up to the heavens and say, 'Mandy, we did it,'" Templet said, looking up toward the church ceiling. 'You, Brett and Brett's deaths were not in vain.'"

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.