PORT ALLEN — Residents living on the west side of the Mississippi River are optimistic a plan to widen portions of Interstate 10 could help alleviate the Baton Rouge area’s growing traffic woes.
But a Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development meeting Tuesday about proposed fixes gave these residents little confidence state leaders would actually address the issue anytime soon.
“It’s time to stop doing studies. It’s time for action,” Susan Jackson said. “They know what the problem is. Something has to give. Something has to be done.”
Jackson, who lives in Plaquemine, was one of nearly 200 people who attended DOTD’s second public meeting on the state’s feasibility study for the I-10 project.
The public was given its first opportunity to sound off on the plan Monday at a meeting held at the Baton Rouge River Center.
The third and final meeting will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Baton Rouge.
The I-10 widening plan would add a lane in each direction between the I-10 Mississippi River bridge and the I-10/12 split at a cost of up to $350 million.
The proposal has already triggered criticism from longtime business owners around the Perkins Road overpass area and Baton Rouge residents living near the Washington Street exit.
Business owners near the Perkins Road overpass area say expanding I-10 would jeopardize their livelihoods, including barber shops, restaurants, retail stores and drugstores that have operated for decades.
“Those business owners are obviously not stuck in traffic every day,” Jackson said.
Part of the plan involves closing the existing Washington Street exit to make room for the additional lanes.
Meanwhile, parish leaders on the west side of the river are angling for a new bridge — a lofty ambition DOTD officials have priced at nearly $1 billion.
“All the money they’ve wasted on studies they could have used to build a new bridge, which is something we need,” Prudence Spooner said Tuesday.
Spooner, who lives in Port Allen but works in Baton Rouge, says she has to leave at least an hour early if she wants to cross the I-10 Mississippi River bridge to get to work on time.
“Everyone says they want a new bridge, but no one wants it in their backyards,” Brusly resident Paula Rhodes said. “But someone is going to have to give up some property and move because another bridge could fix the problem.”
Tuesday night’s meeting proved that local attitudes regarding construction of a new bridge in West Baton Rouge Parish have changed among residents since seven years ago.
When DOTD announced plans in 2008 for a proposed Baton Rouge loop bridge over the Mississippi River, West Baton Rouge Parish residents balked at the idea and even petitioned the Parish Council not to support the endeavor.
At the time, the west side was largely unaffected by the daily traffic problems Baton Rouge commuters have been dealing with since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But within the past three years, the area has seen its daily traffic more than double with the expansion of industry in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes.
In 2010, about 88,000 cars crossed the I-10 bridge daily. That number jumped to approximately 102,000, according to a 2013 DOTD report.
“The public has changed its mind because they’re spending more time in existing traffic on both sides of the bridge now,” Councilman Chris “Fish” Kershaw said at the meeting Tuesday. “And people are getting angry because they don’t see anything being done about it.
“They’re tired of studies. They want solutions,” he said.
West Baton Rouge Parish Councilman Barry Hugghins has spent the past month rallying support from nearly every municipality and governing board in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes, many of which have adopted resolutions beseeching Congress to step in with a solution.
“In the past, we haven’t really had the public buy-in, and it’s hard to get elected officials to support a project when you don’t have public backing,” DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said before Tuesday night’s meeting.
DOTD officials told the packed room that the meetings are designed to get public input, but added it could be five years before any work begins.
“It takes time,” DOTD Deputy Secretary Eric Kalivoda said in an interview before the meeting. “We’re going to go as quickly as we can. I think we can get benefits with incremental, phased projects along I-10.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.