While the state will hold three more public hearings on widening Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge, when and whether the project ever happens is unclear.
The hearings scheduled for Feb. 22, 23 and 25 are on top of three public hearings held last year on the same proposal, including similar formats.
But all of the same issues that hovered over last year’s gatherings remain, including how to finance a $350 million project amid a $2 billion shortfall starting July 1 and a $12.7 billion backlog of transportation needs.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, has said it makes no sense to be discussing expanding I-10 between the Mississippi River bridge and the I-10/12 split without a way to pay for it.
“The I-10 widening project certainly has merit,” Graves said in an email sent earlier this week.
“However, traffic projections show that by the time the project is finished, increases in traffic will more than offset the additional capacity,” he said.
Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said the upcoming hearings have value.
“I think a lot of people get confused on transportation projects by assuming you can only talk about things that you can afford,” Wilson said.
“One of my mantras is, ‘You can eat an elephant; you just can’t do it at one time,’ ” he added.
Wilson said widening work on Interstate 12 in the Baton Rouge area, Interstate 49 in north Louisiana and I-10 in New Orleans were all done in segments as dollars became available.
“And it all started with the same process we are using for I-10,” he said.
The hearings will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 22 at McKinley Middle Magnet School; Feb. 23 at Addis Community Center; and Feb. 25 at Baton Rouge Marriott.
State officials want public comments — nearly 15,000 were collected last year — and will offer preliminary alternatives.
DOTD officials and consultants will be on hand to answer questions.
Wilson, who started his job on Jan. 4, said the gatherings stem in part from what DOTD officials heard in the public hearings last year.
“What we are doing differently this time is providing the public with kind of an overview of where we have been and what are the results of those first rounds of public hearings,” he said.
Wilson said the meetings amount to “here is what you told us, and here is how we are moving forward.
“We are looking at what is practical, what is affordable, and we will say, ‘Here are the options,’ ” he said.
About 150,000 cars and trucks use the corridor daily.
Traffic backups on and near the bridge are a regular source of motorist complaints even in a metro area notorious for slowdowns.
One sentiment that surfaced during the hearing on Sept. 3 is that more than widening I-10 is needed to ease Baton Rouge travel times.
However, building a new bridge across the Mississippi River south of the I-10 structure — a recurring suggestion — would cost more than $1 billion.
Changing the Washington Street exit — a key chokepoint for eastbound traffic leaving the bridge — also was cited.
That idea gained momentum last month when Gov. John Bel Edwards and East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden briefed President Barack Obama on congestion near the bridge during Obama’s visit to Baton Rouge.
However, even that push depends on landing a federal grant by October.
Wilson said afterward any road relief in the area is likely years away, in part because of required environmental studies.
Graves said work on a new bridge across the Mississippi River should start now, the Washington Street exit “needs to be fixed yesterday” and the Capital Area Transportation System “is a waste of taxpayer funds that is incredibly inefficient.”
Former DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas, who launched last year’s hearings, said on Aug. 31 it could be five years before any I-10 widening work begins.
Wilson said it is too early for timelines.
“We want to move as quickly as possible,” he said. “Practically speaking, that depends on money and what the decisions are.”
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.