West Side Expressway, new bridge, gaining traction _lowres

West Side Expressway map

Traction is starting to build for a proposed new four-lane highway on the west side of the Mississippi and a new bridge across the river, but the speed bump on the plans may be the estimated price tag: $1.65 billion.

Talk of the new West Side Expressway and bridge began in earnest about five years ago, but the state Legislature only this year approved $1.65 million for a feasibility study of the proposed expressway, which would begin at Interstate 10 west of Port Allen and run to La. 1 south of Plaquemine.

A new Mississippi River bridge that’s part of the project would go from the west bank, between Plaquemine and White Castle, to the east bank, south of Baton Rouge.

Two parishes, Ascension and Iberville, are poised to provide funds for the study, as well.

On Thursday, the Ascension Parish Council approved a resolution to provide $125,000. It’s anticipated the Iberville Parish Council will provide a bit more, $175,000, because the proposed new bridge would tie into its parish, in the Plaquemine area.

“It’s sorely needed,” Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso said Friday.

“It’s just a no-brainer for me. It’s really past time” for it to happen, said state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, who sponsored the bill for the state funding of the initial study.

The expressway also has been called the West Bank Connector; St. Germain, who is the House Transportation Committee chairwoman, said she likes to think of the proposed highway as the West Side-East Side Connection, because it will benefit residents on both sides of the river.

While the expressway is being looked to as a way to open up the west bank of the Mississippi to development and serve as a new evacuation route during hurricanes and other emergencies, an immediate effect would come in the form of traffic relief.

“The biggest problem right now is not what’s coming, it’s what’s already there,” St. Germain said of the traffic snarls.

She said she’s spoken with heads of numerous plants on both sides of the river that have lost employees “because of the time it takes to get home” in the face of traffic congestion that gets worse the closer drivers get to the I-10 Mississippi River bridge.

Sherri LeBas, state transportation secretary, has said the state Department of Transportation and Development could possibly start the feasibility study in August 2015.

On Friday, Indira Parrales, a public information officer with DOTD, said the agency is in the process of updating the statewide transportation plan and “part of the process includes evaluating potential ‘mega-projects’ for inclusion in the plan.” The West Side Expressway is under consideration for inclusion as such a mega-project, Parrales said.

At the Ascension Parish Council meeting on Thursday, Craig Gardner, director of business development for the Baton Rouge design firm SJB Group, said the new highway would “put 122,980 acres in play” for development on the west bank of the river.

The Baton Rouge planning and engineering consulting firm has compiled information on the proposed project for the state and local governing bodies.

Gardner said new access to the west bank could translate into new projects of $1 billion to $2 billion annually for the state and 500 to 1,000 permanent plant operation employees added each year for several years out.

Ascension Parish Council member Teri Casso, who also chairs the transportation council of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said she saw early plans for the West Side Expressway about a year ago.

“I’ve been patiently waiting” for more to happen with the project, she said.

“This is an important project. It is scary in its dollar value, but it is about our future,” Casso said Friday. “This is an opportunity for us to improve access to areas that are in great need of economic development.”