GONZALES — State highway officials are conducting or planning “corridor” studies to see how to improve traffic movement through two of Ascension Parish’s notoriously clogged arteries: La. 73 in Dutchtown and La. 44 south of Interstate 10 near Burnside.
State Department of Transportation and Development officials said the studies, which are expected to take 12 to 18 months each, will weigh the effectiveness of possible fixes, including more lanes on La. 44, some kind of improvement to the La. 44/Loosemore Road intersection and a new road connecting La. 73 with Bluff Road in Dutchtown.
But officials were unable to say when the studies might translate into improvements, pointing to a variety of long-term uncertainties, including funding.
“There’s a lot of variables,” said Rodney Mallett, DOTD spokesman.
The La. 44 study has not yet started, but the La. 73 study, which is examining the stretch between La. 621 and La. 74, is underway and expected to be finished next summer, said Anastasia Semien, DOTD spokeswoman.
Both studies came up last week as the Ascension Parish Planning Commission grappled with the 285-home Belle Savanne subdivision off La. 73, just north of Dutchtown High School, and the 163-home Oak Lake subdivision off La. 44.
The commission tried to balance projects that met parish development rules against residents’ claims that state highways and other infrastructure are already too taxed to take on new homes.
But the Parish Council-appointed commissioners, who have argued they lack the authority to block projects that meet the rules or require developers to make major state highway upgrades in the absence of road impact fees, were left with calling for parish studies and cajoling incremental funding from developers.
Peggy Martin, who lives off Loosemore Road, complained at the Dec. 8 meeting that traffic is “past horrific” and worried about more lots from Oak Lake on nearby La. 44.
“People that are retired like we are, we are house-bound from 2 to 2:30 in the afternoon to 7 o’clock. We cannot get out of that subdivision,” Martin said.
But Bob Turner, a parish engineer, told the commissioners that he could not in good conscience require one developer to pay for a $4 million roundabout at Loosemore/La. 44 just south of Oak Lake that could improve traffic.
Oak Lake’s developer is planning for his subdivision’s entrance to be a roundabout on La. 44 north of Loosemore that another developer of nearby Conway Plantation has agreed to build in a deal with the city of Gonzales. The Oak Lake developer has earmarked $75,000 for other possible La. 44 improvements, and if there’s any money leftover, the developer said, it will go toward a study of the Loosemore intersection south of Oak Lane.
For Dutchtown’s Belle Savanne development, long-term planning and road construction were the proposed answers to similar worries during the meeting, but home construction could start next year before any such planning or construction will take place.
Parish officials and representatives for Belle Savanne said the subdivision would have the parish’s first two-lane boulevard divided with a median. The hope, they said, is the boulevard, which would dead-end in Belle Savanne, would one day be connected to Bluff Road by DOTD.
Nick Ferlito, a consulting traffic engineer, said DOTD is pushing forward with an east-west road between La. 73 and Bluff Road to help traffic. Ferlito said when Belle Savanne emerged, DOTD saw it as a chance to build the connection faster.
Some residents of nearby Crestview Estates, which is off Bluff Road, didn’t think putting more traffic on narrow Bluff Road, a state highway, was a good idea. One man noted he fought miles of traffic on La. 73 and La. 74 to reach the hearing in Gonzales.
“And now you’re going to put 285 homes in the middle of all that,” asked Ray Dickey, 55, of Dutchtown. “Does not make sense. So when you talk about tax money, as a homeowner and taxpayer, why do I want to pay taxes so that’s what I get?”
DOTD officials said Thursday that the connection to Bluff Road through Belle Savanne is being studied.
“There’s no guarantee that it’s going to go there or anywhere,” DOTD spokesman Mallett said.
As a contingency, the Planning Commission voted to block new homes in the final 97-home phase of Belle Savanne until DOTD awards a bid to build the Bluff Road connection.
After backing Belle Savanne and Oak Lake, Commission Chairman Jackie Callender suggested a building moratorium to study the status of all the parish’s infrastructure.
“What we need to do is to understand are we pushing the envelope for all of the capacities. The infrastructure here was designed to support what was,” he said. “Is it supporting what is and will be?”
Commissioner Gasper Chifici instead pushed to ask the Parish Council to back a proposal to do a broad study of the parish’s state highways, which the commission agreed to do.
In all, the commission approved 568 new lots during last week’s meeting and learned it had 4,751 residential lots that are being built or are under planning review.
The commission also recommended a zoning change that would allow another 1,100 lots at the now defunct Riverton Plantation along La. 22 and just down the road from La. 44.