Baton Rouge area residents got their first chance Monday night to sound off on a state proposal to widen Interstate 10, and some are eager for major changes.
The plan, which was offered by the top official of the state Department of Transportation and Development, 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.
“So far, I really like the concept,” said Amiee deWit, who lives near the Perkins Road overpass area that has been a longtime hotbed of criticism of any such overhaul.
She said she was especially encouraged to hear that, if new lanes are added along the 4-mile corridor, much of the work could be done within the existing right of way.
Atta Hassan, a chemical engineer who attended the meeting, said daily commutes between Baton Rouge and her job at Dow Chemical in Plaquemine are a regular headache.
“We are losing a lot of our lives sitting on the interstate,” Hassan said. “It is taking me an hour-and-a-half to two hours to get home.”
Two of Hassan’s chemical engineer colleagues — Kenneth Noojin and Marcella Dupuis — echoed her complaints.
Dupuis said road improvements are badly needed so she can avoid having to use a ferry, the U.S. 190 Mississippi River Bridge or the Sunshine Bridge to get to work.
The gathering was the first of three this week to get public input on ways to ease daily traffic backups on a corridor that handles about 150,000 cars and trucks per day.
DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas, who made the proposal, said the hearings are designed to get public input and that it could be five years before any work begins.
The proposal has triggered criticism from longtime business owners around the Perkins Road overpass area and residents near the Washington Street exit.
But some of those on hand Monday night said there has to be a better way to get through the center of Baton Rouge.
Andrea Galinski said he regularly deals with traffic problems traveling between downtown, Essen Lane and Jefferson Highway for day care for her children, ages 4 months and 2 1/2 years.
George Haun, another employee at Dow Chemical, said some of his former colleagues took early retirement because they were tired of the drive to and from work.
“It’s real,” Haun said of the grinding commute.
Supporters of more lanes, including residents on the west side of the river, said they are tired of possible solutions being killed by a modest number of people along a coast-to-coast interstate.
On the other side, business owners near the Perkins Road overpass area say expanding I-10 would jeopardize their livelihoods, including barber shops, restaurants, retail stores and drug stores that have operated for decades.
Some residents near the Washington Street exit are fearful that any interstate expansion will cost them their homes.
Both groups have helped kill previous widening proposals.
Matt Bartol, who lives in the Garden District, noted that previous efforts to trim traffic congestion have run aground amid a variety of problems.
“I think they are doing it the right way this time,” Bartol said of DOTD officials.
Just before the meeting, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne became the second contender for governor to offer ideas on improving traffic between the bridge and the split.
Dardenne said he favors adding a new Washington Street exit — it would go on the left side of I-10 — and implementing staggered shifts for downtown workers, including state employees.
“We don’t have to wait until we can afford an additional bridge to get some relief to this unacceptable situation,” the Baton Rouge Republican said in a prepared statement.
Last week, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, began airing radio ads where he suggests moving the Washington Street exit, which is a key chokepoint for eastbound traffic leaving the I-10 bridge.
Two previous efforts to widen I-10 since 2000 have failed because of financing and other problems.
Earlier in the day, a coalition of Baton Rouge businesses said candidates for governor and legislative offices should spell out their plans to improve transportation in the State Capital, including congestion on I-10.
The comments were issued by the Capitol Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions, or CRISIS.
The group was organized by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance and the Center for Planning Excellence.
Members include ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, Dow Chemical Co., Lamar Advertising, Turner Industries and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
CRISIS said its message is simple: “Make the Baton Rouge region’s traffic crisis a top priority of your campaign, work cooperatively in support of a comprehensive regional mobility plan and offer serious and specific funding solutions to implement it.”
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