DOTD: La. traffic snarls, delays show big hike in July _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- A DOTD electronic message board on I-10 eastbound in Port Allen, nearing the approach to the Mississippi River Bridge, keeps motorists abreast of pertinent road conditions. The signs can post traffic and weather updates, amber alerts and other information.

Feel like traffic snarls around the new Mississippi River Bridge have been especially bad lately?

Statistics back up those suspicions.

Lane closures on and near the Baton Rouge bridge shot up by 50 percent during July, an official of the state Department of Transportation said Monday.

Kirk Gallien, deputy assistant secretary of operations for DOTD, said in a typical month there are about 50 lane closures as result of crashes, stalled vehicles and debris in the road.

But those shutdowns rose to 76 during July and state officials are unsure why.

“We are going to continue to see if this is an anomaly rather than a trend,” Gallien said.

Traffic on and near the Interstate 10 Bridge is one of the biggest chokepoints in a metro area with lots of them.

About 102,000 cars and trucks use the structure daily, said Rodney Mallet, a spokesman for DOTD.

But the spike in incidents is unusual even for often gridlocked Baton Rouge.

While backups near the bridge are common during morning and evening rush hours, a number of incidents in July caused snarls that extended for miles at all hours, with traffic in one or both directions sometimes at a standstill.

Shortly after noon on Monday eastbound traffic on Interstate 10 was backed up from Perkins Road to beyond La. 415 in Lobdell.

The culprit?

Debris on the road, officials said.

Gallien said a stalled truck in a westbound lane of the bridge was reported about 1 p.m. Sunday.

Four hours later, westbound traffic was barely moving from the bridge to College Drive and further east.

Democratic state Rep. Karen St. Germain, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, makes the trek across the bridge from her home in nearby Pierre Part daily during the legislative session, which this year ended June 2.

“I have always gotten complaints and always lots of complaints,” St. Germain said. “But since we left session, I have gotten more phone calls.”

She said her office got 279 traffic complaints during a recent two-month period.

“That is not acceptable,” the lawmaker said.

Gallien said the last time state officials noticed a big increase in lane closures was in March 2013.

But after that, incidents returned to normal levels until the leap last month.

“What we see is there was an inordinate amount compared to average lane closures,” he said of the July tally.

Gallien said DOTD does not keep track of incidents in terms of severity.

Of the 76 cases that triggered lane closures on and near the bridge on both sides of the river, 27 involved accidents and 49 were stalled vehicles or debris.

He said traffic volume has not shown any big increases.

Car and truck counts on the road are typically lower when LSU, Southern University and other schools are out of session except for summer classes.

However, Gallien said vacationers keep volume up during summer months, including on weekends.

State Transportation Secretary Sherri LeBas said last year that the state was considering ways to redirect traffic from the new Mississippi River bridge to the old, U.S. 190 bridge, which is used by about 29,000 cars and trucks daily.

The state this month will take bids for a travel message board that will be placed on La. 1 northbound.

It will advise motorists on travel times to cross both bridges.

Other message boards are also planned for I-10 east before La. 415; U.S. 190 east before La. 415 and I-10 west before La. 415.

St. Germain successfully sponsored legislation earlier this year to study the feasibility of building a new bridge across the Mississippi River.

The bridge would cost an estimated $800 million.

Possible connecting sites on the west bank include spots between Brusly and Addis, south of Addis, and south of Plaquemine but north of St. Gabriel.

However, any such project is years away from becoming reality.

Gallien said that, in the past year, DOTD, State Police and local law enforcement officials have undergone additional traffic management training to learn ways to clear congested lanes quicker.

Since 2008, state and federal road upgrades total $540 million in East Baton Rouge Parish and $127 million in West Baton Parish, according to DOTD officials.

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