While President Barack Obama was briefed on Baton Rouge traffic problems last week, any road relief near the Interstate 10 Mississippi River bridge is years away, Louisiana’s transportation chief said.
Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said the state’s push to land a $100 million federal grant this year could free up $20 million in state dollars for repairs near the bridge and the often-congested Washington Street exit.
“That will give us some relief sooner rather than later,” Wilson said. “If the $100 million falls, it puts other things in motion.”
But even if Louisiana lands the federal aid by Oct. 1, environmental studies, design requirements — up to 18 months — and other steps have to be done before the exit can be reworked.
The area is a sore spot even in a metropolitan area known for traffic gridlock.
Eastbound traffic leaving the bridge includes an inside lane that forces traffic off at Washington Street. That means travelers often make hasty moves to get out of the inside lane and onto one headed for I-10 East.
Meanwhile, motorists on Interstate 110 South are coming from the opposite direction to get to the Washington Street exit, which contributes to daily backups on a bridge used by 102,000 cars and trucks daily.
The federal aid would finance 60 percent of plans to upgrade parts of I-10 between Interstate 49 in Lafayette and the Atchafalaya Basin.
Then, state dollars could be used to tackle issues near Washington Street, including the possibility of moving the exit from the right side of I-110 South — closest to the river — to the left side, and possibly nearer to downtown.
Sixth District U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, whose district includes the problem spot, and others also have suggested carving out an additional eastbound lane between the bridge and the Washington Street exit to improve traffic.
“There are different configurations that folks are talking about,” said Graves, a member of the U.S. House Transportation Committee.
Said Wilson, “I don’t know that it is an option, and I don’t know that it is not.”
Graves and Wilson are scheduled to meet this week.
The $100 million the state is seeking stems from the transportation funding bill that Congress finalized in December, with Graves one of the conferees on the House-Senate negotiating committees.
Aside from work around the Washington Street exit, the federal infusion would free $30 million in state dollars for a rail corridor environmental study between Baton Rouge and New Orleans; rail crossing improvements; and the design of a revamped I-10/Loyola Drive interchange leading to a new terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
How Obama was apprised of a major Baton Rouge traffic problem sparked a separate controversy among Democratic leaders.
“He didn’t know that before, and had I not taken advantage of the opportunity, he wouldn’t have known it today,” Edwards said.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden, who, like Edwards, rode with Obama from the airport to his hotel on Jan. 13, disputed fellow Democrat Edwards’ version of events.
Holden said he told the president how the interstate shrunk to one lane near the bridge.
The mayor said Obama backed his version when, during his visit to McKinley High School, he credited Holden with calling his attention to the issue.
Obama said, “I know that your mayor was talking about how the interstate here narrows, and we may need to do something about it to relieve some traffic.”
Asked why Edwards took credit, Holden said, “You have to ask him that.”
Through a spokesman, Edwards was asked if the governor wanted to comment.
“The governor stands by his remarks,” Edwards communications director Richard Carbo said in an email Tuesday.
“He appreciated the president letting him, and others, discuss the traffic problems along I-10,” Carbo wrote. “As long as the job gets done right, the governor isn’t concerned with who gets credit.”
Edwards also presented a letter to Obama dated Jan. 13 that spelled out a wide range of state priorities, including a pitch for help around the Washington Street exit.