Top officials in West Baton Rouge, Iberville looking to gubernatorial candidates for answers to traffic woes _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Drivers are greeted by slow-moving traffic on the Mississippi River Bridge for eastbound Interstate 10, Friday, July 25, 2014 in West Baton Rouge near exit 153 for north and southbound LA 1.

Top elected officials in West Baton Rouge and Iberville say they are looking toward Louisiana’s upcoming governor’s race for answers on how to ease growing traffic frustrations plaguing the west bank of the Mississippi River and the larger capital region.

Any hopes something might happen sooner were dashed by the Louisiana House’s recent rejection of a proposal to generate $7.5 billion for transportation through a 1 cent hike in the state’s sales tax.

Now, officials on the west side of the river who have been begging for years for another bridge to be built to relieve traffic congestion say they are waiting to hear from the gubernatorial candidates on the traffic issues.

“I haven’t heard one of these four candidates — other than John Bel Edwards — talk about the traffic issue in the Baton Rouge area,” Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso said. “It’s going to be ludicrous for the next man to step into that office and not know that sooner or later they’ll need to come up with a plan about how they’re going to fix that traffic. It’s only going to get worse.”

West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot adds, “We even got industry behind this. When they talk to gubernatorial contenders, if they don’t talk about the infrastructure needs over here, they tell them ‘We’re not going to support them.’ ”

Berthelot said communities on the west side of the river haven’t really been getting their fair share of projects done. He said infrastructure “needs to be up there with health care and education” in spending priorities.

According to previous reports, the state faces a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

The revenue from House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain’s House Bill 778 tax proposal, which failed to get the 70 votes it needed in a vote on May 28, would have financed 18 projects statewide, including construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River.

That new bridge is the only viable solution Ourso and Berthelot believe would relieve the weekday congestions along La. 1 and the Mississippi River bridge on Interstate 10.

Parish officials say the daily gridlocks have made it tougher for local industry, like Dow Chemical Co. and Shintech, to retain workers. Officials with the school districts in both parishes also say they have lost a substantial number of teachers due to the now exhausting and frustrating daily commute across the Mississippi River.

According to the most recent data from the Department of Transportation, approximately 47,000 vehicles travel each day on La. 1 near the Intracoastal Waterway bridge in West Baton Rouge. However, only 24,573 people live in West Baton Rouge Parish, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Those people are coming from (plants in) Iberville Parish trying to get back home,” Ourso said. “Iberville doesn’t have a traffic problem. But I want these state leaders to look at what Iberville has put in the kettle, in terms of bringing all this industry to the region.”

He added, “If part of the solution to the traffic problems is a new bridge, I’m just asking that Iberville be looked at to tie up our east and west banks.”

In her pitch to state leaders, St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, said the region’s “highways and bridges have gone to hell in a handbasket.”

Berthelot is convinced that lawmakers weren’t keen on backing St. Germain’s plan because most state lawmakers are facing re-election this year and didn’t want to approve a tax increase in an election year.

“I’m hoping someone will pick up where Karen left off,” Berthelot said.

This year marked St. Germain’s last legislative session due to term limits.

Berthelot said DOTD is still moving forward with its I-10 Corridor Study aimed at determining the feasibility of any improvements to the area of I-10 between the Mississippi River Bridge and the 10/12 split.

DOTD recently extended the deadline for the study’s online public survey portion until June 15.

Berthelot says talks are still ongoing in regards to building what’s called a “Westbank Connector,” a proposed four-lane highway between Interstate 10 near Port Allen and Interstate 310 just west of New Orleans.

Unfortunately, seeing any kind of solution come to fruition will circle back to the need for revenue to implement whatever plans are chosen.

“I think some kind of tax increase is the only chance to get something done in the foreseeable future,” Berthelot said. “There are no quick, inexpensive things we could do.”

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.