GONZALES — As the state and business groups mull the best location for a new Mississippi River bridge location south of Baton Rouge, Ascension Parish officials continued to press for a crossing south of Plaquemine that officials in neighboring Iberville also want.
Just days before another public comment period ends Monday on the long-churning Baton Rouge Loop environmental review process, the Ascension Parish Council petitioned federal highway officials for the Plaquemine crossing to remain in the highway’s final proposed corridor.
The 90- to 105-mile, toll-funded beltway would encircle the Baton Rouge area with interstate-style highways and two river crossings.
The Ascension Parish Council has once before stated its preference for the Plaquemine crossing, but the final proposed Loop corridor now up for comment eliminates that crossing in favor of two spots upriver in West Baton Rouge Parish.
In a resolution the council approved unanimously Thursday, Ascension Parish officials cited a future Plaquemine bridge’s proximity to riverside industrial facilities compared with preferred crossings upriver near Brusly and Addis.
Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa said this week the parish’s position comes with an eye toward La. 30’s widening to four lanes.
Consultants have told parish officials previously, though, that any crossing south of Interstate 10 would necessitate the widening of La. 30 to handle the new traffic.
The future of the $4 billion to $5 billion Loop seems uncertain, however, as state government faces the worst financial crisis in a generation and a highway backlog approaching $13 billion.
Former Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez also declared the south section of the Loop dead several years ago, while new funding has been blocked.
The concept remains a potent issue in some parts of the region as Livingston Parish officials, long critics of the northern half of the Loop, adopted their third resolution last month opposing the plan.
But enough money was on hand to finish the first key phase of study, a so-called Tier 1 environmental review, which is coming to an end with this last round of comments, said Mike Bruce, a senior principal with Stantec who has been working on the Loop for years.
Bruce said once the study is approved by federal highway officials, Loop backers, with the little money left, will try to gauge interest for a possible public-private partnership to build sections of the Loop.
Bruce said polls show the broader public favors the concept.
“So there is very strong disconnection with what political leaders and a few anti-Loop opponents say and what the general public believes,” he said.
When Matassa was asked this week if he thought the Loop was still viable, he said a southern bridge could happen because federal officials are putting together a lot of money for new railroad lines. Supporters of a new bridge have long pointed out that the Baton Rouge area needs more rail crossings over the Mississippi and have seen this bridge as the spot for them.
“If you put together a major project with rail, which would be the bridge, then it might happen,” Matassa said.
Ascension officials weighed in for the Plaquemine crossing even though the final Loop environmental report says that crossing was eliminated due to low traffic volumes and the extra 10 to 15 miles of highway needed to tie that crossing with the rest of the Loop.
Proposed crossings in West Baton Rouge Parish had much higher traffic volumes, a key factor for a project that could rely on toll dollars for as much as 71 percent of its funding.
The study also found routes using the upriver crossings avoided the most wetlands and farm land while reducing travel time the most.
But critics have noted the Loop’s studies rely on older data. Ascension Parish officials pointed this week to a recent report from a business and industry group, Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions. It found competing river crossing sites in West Baton Rouge and Iberville have similar benefits and costs: about 1.5 million travel hours saved per year at a cost of $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion. The West Baton Rouge crossing was about $300 million cheaper, though.
Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr., who welcomed Ascension’s resolution, said he doesn’t have much confidence in engineering reports coming out of Baton Rouge, anyway.
Ourso pointed to the $409 million John James Audubon Bridge and the low traffic volumes that bridge carries over the Mississippi since it opened near St. Francisville in 2011.
Ourso quipped that bridge should have been named the “Ought-a-been,” as in “Ought-a-been in Iberville.”
“They spelt that name wrong,” he said.
The bridge was built under the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development Program, which the Legislature created in 1989 to fund 16 projects aimed at spurring economic development, not reducing traffic.
State highway officials remain in the process of studying future river crossings sites.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.