Our Views: When it comes to highway ‘mega-projects,’ elephant now on the menu _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRIANNA PACIORKA -- Shawn Wilson, chief of staff at the DOTD. ORG XMIT: BAT1512150914543991

An old cliché is guaranteed a long life, if true. And that’s particularly telling when it comes to a line regularly applied to Louisiana’s failure to build its roads.

“You can eat an elephant,” says Shawn Wilson. “You just can’t do it at one time.”

Wilson is the new head of the state Department of Transportation and Development, and so he is in charge of a herd of elephants and precious little in the way of steak knives.

The specific project Wilson was talking about, to his hometown audience, is the Interstate 49 Connector through the city of Lafayette. Wilson said the project is expensive and so will likely be rolled out one piece at a time.

Construction in an urban area is especially vexing, given the problems with utilities, staging of workers and equipment, and keeping existing traffic moving somehow. The I-49 Connector is estimated at $700 million, at least.

As of today, Wilson said, there is no clear answer on where the money will come from. Much of the I-49 south portion is already raised to interstate-highway standards, although the final connection to New Orleans depends on what will likely be an even more expensive elevated highway on the west side of the river.

But that is not all on Wilson’s plate. He also has to find money to build other “mega-projects,” including a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River at Lake Charles. And then there are other vexing urban projects like the perennial discussion about the I-10 gridlock in Baton Rouge.

A widening of Interstate 110 in Baton Rouge is DOTD’s apparently achievable portion of that elephant. The community is not happy about the lack of a new bridge over the Mississippi River, the preferred and much more expensive option pushed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

For all the mega-projects, the fact is just as Wilson advised at a meeting of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority: “It is no longer a big cloud that is going to rain green dollars on the state to build a project,” he said of federal funding.

DOTD is still paying on bonds to build the last round of mega-projects, the TIMED program that linked most of the state’s cities with four-lane highways. And that program was funded by a statewide election raising gasoline taxes — a generation ago.

That’s a long time back, indicating how hard it is to raise taxes even for projects that are obviously needed. It’s not clear, given the shortage of money facing the state’s operating budget, when or how Wilson’s boss — new Gov. John Bel Edwards — will address in a big way the need for new construction of roads, bridges and rails in our state.

But as Wilson made clear, every menu at this point is based on pieces of elephant and not the whole beast.