Traffic on the Mississippi Bridge near downtown Baton Rouge. 

Talks around building a new Mississippi River bridge are still in a holding pattern as preliminary engineering work on its location and practicality continues — work necessary to get federal funding needed to help pay for the estimated $1 billion endeavor. 

"We lost a little momentum due to [the pandemic] but it's still moving forward," said state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen. "And I know it's frustrating for the public to hear how long we have to sift through this, but even if we had the money in the bank this study would still have to happen."

But Ward and others involved say the way this project is structured could help it avoid the fate of previous attempts to build a new bridge over the river, which fell apart upon facing political pushback. 

Building a new Mississippi River bridge has become a unicorn project local leaders and the public think would greatly alleviate the traffic woes ailing the Interstate-10 bridge, which sees about 150,000 cars and track cross it daily.  Gridlock on the bridge has become somewhat of a daily occurrence, tipped off by so much as the slightest fender bender.   

Ward has been pushing for a new bridge at the state Legislature. That includes creating the Capital Area Road and Bridge District two years ago, tasked with overseeing much of the project. 

The district includes two appointees at the state level and each of the parish presidents from Iberville, Ascension, Livingston, East and West Baton Rouge parishes -- roughly the same group that oversaw the now defunct loop project. 

That project died after three of the then five parish presidents on a special board pulled out in April 2011, following vocal opposition from constituents in their respective parishes over possible route locations and economic feasibility. 

Ward says that won't happen with the new bridge, since the 7-member bridge district functions more like a board — a majority vote advances any measure instead of unanimous decisions.

"If something would have to go to the vote of the people in those regions, then each parish would have to vote in favor of something," Ward said. "The only scenario that would happen is if they wanted to impose a millage or fees to pay for it, but I don't foresee that happening."

How the state will pay for a new bridge remains to be seen. Discussions have included public-private partnerships, toll roads and hiking the state's gas tax.

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"You need money. Real projects have real money. Until we start talking about the real money to put on a real project, it's all just talk," said Jamie Setze, executive director of the Capital Region Planning Commission. 

Setze acknowledges there could be a massive infrastructure bill coming out of the U.S. Congress soon under the President Joe Biden administration that could provide a lot of the federal dollars need. But the region would have to have all the necessary studies and preliminary work completed to get allocated money for the project. 

The next overarching topic connected to a new bridge: location, location, location. 

In December, state officials said the public would get its first look at 15 possible crossings for a new Mississippi River bridge in Spring 2022. 

The top picks range from just south of Brusly in West Baton Rouge Parish on La. 1 to south of Plaquemine in Iberville Parish. Most of those potential sites would dump traffic from a new bridge onto La. 30 between just north of Gardere Lane and north of St. Gabriel. 

Those scenarios would tie in with upcoming improvements along La. 30, or Nicholson Drive, that were included in Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's MovEBR roads improvement plan.

"It's now a two-lane road, it's going to become four lanes," said Fred Raiford, the city-parish's director of drainage and transportation. 

With the bridge funneling traffic on La. 30, Raiford said, "It gives you another connection point around Baton Rouge." 

Raiford said officials would prefer unanimous consensus among parish leaders in the five-parish district on location. But it's not needed, and dissension would not stall the project the way it did the loop idea. 

But, until the funding source is figured out, "It's a little too early to say anything."  

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