The path to the $409 million John James Audubon Bridge continues to be the road less traveled.
Nearly four years after the bridge connecting West Feliciana and Pointe Coupee parishes opened in May 2011, it has yet to carry the volume of traffic across the Mississippi River projected from the first day motorists were able to use it.
A consulting group that managed the cable-stayed bridge’s construction estimated it would carry 4,000 vehicles a day from the start. A year later, 2,900 vehicles were using it. And the most recent data available puts the traffic volume at 3,400 vehicles.
Some are skeptical that the traffic volume will reach the 6,500 vehicles projected for 2020 and more than triple that to 22,960 by 2040, but economic development officials in Pointe Coupee and West Feliciana say they are optimistic about the future for a bridge that has spurred growth in those parishes.
Among those who view the Audubon Bridge with a more jaundiced eye is West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley “Peewee” Berthelot. He watched the bridge get funded and constructed up the river from his parish even as traffic on La. 1 in West Baton Rouge continued to stack up, along with daily delays on the heavily traveled Mississippi River bridge from Baton Rouge.
“These bridges are built where politicians want them to go, not where they are needed,” Berthelot said.
Les Cantrell, Pointe Coupee’s economic development director, though, said the bridge is bringing more commerce to the parish, noting the expansion or opening of about 30 new businesses within the last 18 months.
“We’re seeing great benefits,” Cantrell said.
State and parish officials remain optimistic that traffic over the bridge will continue to grow as the bridge serves its intended purpose as an economic development tool for the two parishes it connects.
DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said the projection models for the Audubon Bridge were based on the number of people who used the old St. Francisville-New Roads ferry system, a diversion of a percentage of travelers from the U.S. 190 bridge and Natchez bridges and a redistribution of the current traffic patterns at the time with annual increases in traffic volume.
The Audubon Bridge’s construction was part of the state’s Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development Program, which was established by Act 16 of the 1989 legislative session. The program is funded with a dedicated 4-cents-per-gallon, voter-approved gas tax.
Mallett said the TIMED Program included 16 specific projects aimed at spurring economic development in Louisiana, not traffic congestion relief.
But relief of traffic congestion is the primary concern of Berthelot, who points to daily traffic woes his parish faces along the I-10 Mississippi River bridge and Intracoastal Waterway bridge on La. 1.
According to DOTD’s 2013 traffic count, the I-10 Mississippi River bridge is flooded with a stream of 102,350 cars each day.
DOTD traffic data also shows that approximately 47,000 vehicles travel each day on La. 1 near the Intracoastal Waterway bridge in West Baton Rouge, but only 24,573 people live in West Baton Rouge Parish, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Berthelot and other parish officials are now urging state leaders to consider building a new bridge over the Mississippi River that would likely connect La. 1 and La. 30.
Iberville Parish officials are starting to speak up, too, with their desire to see a new bridge built somewhere in their parish to connect East and West Iberville.
Berthelot, though, believes his parish has a stronger claim for another bridge based on sheer traffic volume.
“This shouldn’t be about who wants a bridge; it needs to be data driven,” Berthelot said. “We don’t need to build another bridge when it’s not going to do what it’s designed to do, and that’s move traffic.”
Projects in the $5.2 billion TIMED Program also included widening 536 miles of state highways and widening the Huey P. Long Bridge in Jefferson Parish, Mallett said.
The program included improvements to both the Port of New Orleans and Louis Armstrong International Airport.
The Audubon Bridge project included nearly 12 miles of new access road, most of which is in Pointe Coupee Parish. The access road connects to La. 1 in New Roads, linking Pointe Coupee with Avoyelles and Rapides parishes.
Mallett said at the time the legislation was passed by a vote of 30-7 in the Senate, there was a study underway to replace the St. Francisville Ferry, which closed the same day the bridge opened.
According to DOTD, the ferry carted about 720 vehicles across the river each day.
“The TIMED Program was a statewide ‘economic development’ project and the John James Audubon Bridge was considered an important factor for economic development for the La. 10 corridor,” Mallett said.
Cantrell, Pointe Coupee’s economic development director, said the parish already has experienced a 5.6 percent hike in sales tax revenue since the bridge’s opening, a number that jumps to 24 percent in New Roads.
Cantrell attributes much of that to the increase in traffic flow the Audubon Bridge has pulled into the parish’s new Super Wal-Mart and other new or expanded businesses.
Cantrell said the parish has also better positioned itself as a shovel-ready area for large industrial developments through the creation of six certified industrial sites on more than 4,000 acres of undeveloped land.
“With that Super Wal-Mart coming in, we’re noticing a lot of traffic come across the bridge into the New Roads area. When I see new faces, I ask where they’re from and about half a dozen tell me they live in West Feliciana,” he said.
As for the daily traffic being under original projections, Cantrell attributes that to the bridge opening nearly 10 years before it was originally supposed to open, in 2020.
“We never had a grand opening where we got all the press about it,” Cantrell said. “I think that hurt to some extent. Over time, people had to find it.”
West Feliciana Parish hasn’t reaped the same economic rewards as Pointe Coupee so far, but the bridge and a new business growth plan could soon change that.
“There are two perspectives that are really important to identify when talking about this,” said Bettsie Norton, West Feliciana Parish’s economic development director. “Has there been a lot of traffic on the bridge? No, there has not. Numbers don’t lie. But you have to understand the long-term perspective for the economic development strategy for our parish.”
Norton said the parish is confident the bridge’s traffic will pick up and eventually hit its daily traffic projections as more people move to West Feliciana Parish as growth in many of the surrounding parishes in the Baton Rouge metro area becomes stagnant.
“They’re pretty much getting to capacity in regards to what their infrastructure can sustain,” she said. “We’re actively going to recruit those families that are tired of fighting traffic in Baton Rouge, tired of paying tuition for private school and want their kids to attend good public schools. We have some really great quality of life aspects here in the parish.”
She added, “We love the fact that (the bridge) connects us to our friends in Pointe Coupee. Let’s be honest, they have larger population and they have things that our parish can’t sustain.”
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