Engineer Wilfred Barry is making the rounds with local officials in suburban Baton Rouge parishes.
He’s been making a pitch to jump-start a major state highway project he says many already agree will be critical if Louisiana ever builds a new Mississippi River bridge between Baton Rouge and Donaldsonville: widening La. 30 from two to four lanes between the two cities at an estimated cost of $225 million.
Barry hasn’t won over everyone with the pocketbooks necessary to do the preliminary work he is pushing, but the effort comes during a period of flux — just before major highway funding priorities are set for the next few years under Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ administration. His administration will grapple with the state’s perennial budget shortfalls and a $12 billion roadwork backlog, but some officials point out the state has still managed to build a new Mississippi River bridge every 10 years. The John James Audubon Bridge just south of St. Francisville was opened in May 2011 and connects West Feliciana and Pointe Coupee parishes.
Tracking the east side of the Mississippi through and south of Baton Rouge, but a bit removed from the river’s edge, two-lane La. 30 already is a major business and commuter corridor.
Barry, president of Baton Rouge engineering firm SJB Group, says modeling shows La. 30’s role as a commuter corridor will only intensify with further congestion on Interstate 10 and the strong likelihood that a new Mississippi River bridge will tie into it.
Barry acknowledged recently that he is working for Ascension and Iberville parishes to study and push the viability of an Iberville Parish river crossing, which has been eliminated from the ongoing Baton Rouge Loop project due to lack of traffic demand. The loop has been discussed for nearly a decade as an interstate-style highway ringing the Baton Rouge area with as many as two new crossings of the Mississippi River. Officials with Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes have sparred over where the southern bridge crossing should be.
Barry says he is pushing the La. 30 project out of his own personal belief because, as he has contended in public meetings, whatever southern river crossing ends up happening — in Iberville or West Baton Rouge — the project will need an improved La. 30 to handle the traffic load.
“Any bridge anywhere on the river will land on La. 30,” he told an Ascension Parish Council road panel in early December.
Mike Bruce, a senior principal with rival engineering firm Stantec, who has been heavily involved with the Baton Rouge Loop, agreed with that analysis of La. 30.
Bruce suggested modeling has shown building a new southern bridge without an improved La. 30 would leave traffic stuck on that highway, effectively wasting the added capacity of a new, $1 billion bridge.
“It (widening La. 30) needs to be explored in great detail, without a doubt,” Bruce said.
Barry has asked officials in Ascension, Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes to chip in to update an existing feasibility study for La. 30’s widening and do the next level of required environmental studies to give the project a leg up for state funding. He said he hopes to meet with Baton Rouge officials in January to present his case.
Even as Barry has been making this argument, the state and others have been quietly assessing what would be the best location for a new bridge south of Baton Rouge and how that bridge in connection with other regional road projects can provide the best benefit for the cost, officials said. Some of that work will come into public view early this year.
After prompting from the Legislature in 2014 to study a new bridge location between Baton Rouge and the Sunshine Bridge, the Department of Transportation and Development has hired Providence Consultants under an existing contract to study five river crossings, said Rodney Mallett, DOTD spokesman.
Though some suburban officials declared the Baton Rouge Loop dead a few years ago, the 90- to 105-mile, $4.5 billion project with its two river crossings and its suggestion to widen part of La. 30 has continued to grind forward.
The first critical level of federal environmental review of the loop with a honed-down number of preferred routes and river crossings is nearly complete. A final document is being readied for public comment in January before the federal highway officials’ final seal of approval, highway documents say.
Though the loop effort is winding down on its funding, this final document would set the stage for more refined work on smaller sections of the loop and to start seeking funding to build them.
Separately, Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions, or CRISIS, a business lobby group pushing for regional traffic fixes to unclog the Baton Rouge area’s road grid, has nearly finished its own cost-benefit analysis of 19 regional road projects.
The array of concepts studied includes widening La. 30 and how various Mississippi River crossings work with the highway. CRISIS is doing the high-level study with the Capital Region Planning Commission after talking with local leaders, officials said. Those results also are expected in January.
“I think, hopefully, it will help advance the discussion. It’s not going to be a process to pick a No. 1 project, but it’s certainly going to narrow the field and help focus the discussion on where resources really need to go,” said K. Scott Kirkpatrick, a lobbyist, lawyer and executive director of CRISIS.
Some officials say they aren’t ready to provide the money to do the additional work Barry is pushing.
Barry has estimated a cost of $1.5 million for the La. 30 widening study and suggested the Capital Region Planning Commission could provide $1.2 million if the four parishes — Ascension, Iberville, West and East Baton Rouge — provide $75,000 each.
The Ascension Parish Council agreed to provide its share of $75,000 Dec. 17.
Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. said he didn’t have enough information in time to present the issue to the Parish Council in December, but he plans to present a plan that would call for the council and St. Gabriel to each provide $37,500.
In West Baton Rouge Parish, officials are more lukewarm about Barry’s proposal and are worried it is duplicating ongoing work. Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot said parish officials recognize the need for work on La. 30 for a future bridge. The current, refined version of the loop prefers southern river crossings in his parish to East Baton Rouge, a federal loop plan says.
But he said other parish leaders are also worried La. 30’s price tag would compete with scarce funding for a $125 million West Baton Rouge project: Parish officials want to build a new road west of La. 415 that would tie La. 1 and I-10 in a bid to alleviate traffic on the west bank and I-10 corridor.
Berthelot pointed out the La. 415 project could be built in two or three years, while most estimates suggest a new bridge would take eight to 10 years.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden, said he was unfamiliar with what Barry is seeking and added that the mayor prefers this kind of project go through the Capital Regional Planning Commission first. Daniel said the mayor prefers going through the commission’s priority process to avoid siphoning money from projects that already are a priority.
Jamie Setze, the commission’s executive director, said funding has not been committed but said the work will be evaluated soon as part of the commission’s long-range planning. Still, he said, various analyses have shown widening La. 30 is critical to a new southern bridge.
“If you want a new bridge, La. 30 has to have something done to it,” Setze said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.