A business and industry group lobbying for major upgrades to the Baton Rouge region’s transportation grid on Tuesday identified $3 billion in key highway improvements it says would unclog the capital city’s perennially stalled roads.
The cost-benefit analysis from CRISIS says multiple projects are needed, but the highest benefit would come from boosting highway capacity over the Mississippi River by building a new bridge costing up to $1.6 billion and increasing use of the U.S. 190 bridge.
While Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions officials suggested tolls could contribute to funding for the bridge and some other projects, the group’s executive director said new revenue sources — likely a higher gasoline tax — still would be necessary to provide the hundreds of millions of dollars a year needed to pay for the projects.
“These are not cheap projects, but what we found out from the analysis is they provide a tremendous bang for the buck, and if we’re smart about it, we can really transform how the region really moves,” said K. Scott Kirkpatrick, executive director of CRISIS.
The business group keyed on four major regional projects, costing as much as $2.9 billion combined:
- Adding one lane in each direction on Interstate 10 through Baton Rouge from the I-10/Interstate 12 split to the I-10 bridge — $350 million
- A new Ascension commuter route on I-10 or Airline Highway — up to $180 million for one option only
- A new Mississippi River crossing and widening La. 30 to four lanes — between $1.1 billion and $1.6 billion
- Increase use of the U.S. 190 bridge through the Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan or construction of the North Bypass — between $775 million and $780 million for one option only.
Some elected officials hailed the report for underlining their standing traffic issues but also for signaling the regional cooperation needed to solve those problems.
“This analysis confirms what so many on the west side of the river feel every day — congestion is a considerable issue for those trying to get across the river,” state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, said in a statement released with the report.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden aired the hope that residents could get behind one comprehensive plan now being developed by the Capital Region Planning Commission with these projects in mind.
“We can accomplish so much more when we work together, and I applaud these business and industry leaders for promoting regional cooperation,” Holden said in a statement.
None of those and other officials’ statements spoke to the proposed tax increase, however.
The CRISIS report and its big-dollar ideas arrive as a new Legislature and the new administration of Gov. John Bel Edwards grapple with the worst budget shortfall in a generation: a $1.9 billion hole next fiscal year alone.
Edwards has proposed an array of tax increases to fill next year’s budget holes.
Kirkpatrick said business and industry leaders in CRISIS think some innovative ideas can make incremental progress toward transportation funding.
Toll revenue projections, CRISIS found, range from 25 percent to 60 percent of project costs and could blunt the burden of paying for a new Mississippi River bridge from other public sources by about $300 million.
“But we have dug ourselves such a deep hole,” Kirkpatrick said, “that there’s really nothing short of a gas tax increase that will get us the transformational projects we need.”
He said the group did not settle on how much of an increase might be needed but left to elected officials to determine “just when and where and how much.”
Motorists in the state pay 38.4 cents per gallon in state and federal gas taxes.
Rodney Mallett, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said a 1-cent increase in the state gasoline tax would generate another $30 million per year. Bills to boost the state gas tax by 4 cents per gallon last year failed to gain traction.
CRISIS members met with legislators, the region’s parish presidents and members of the Capital Region Planning Commission to settle on 19 regional proposals for the new analysis.
One of those proposals, adding a new lane onto the I-10 bridge, was eliminated as not feasible by DOTD, so the group ran its cost-benefit inquiry on 18 remaining proposals.
Many are familiar ideas that have emerged in the yearslong back-and-forth over what would be the best fix for Baton Rouge: an elevated section of I-10 through downtown Baton Rouge and part of Port Allen; a parkway tying Walker to Gonzales; or a new crossing over the Amite River tying La. 16 in Livingston Parish to Hooper Road in East Baton Rouge Parish.
At the same time, while the analysis looks at the North Bypass, widening La. 30 and several river crossings — all ideas considered at some point in the ongoing study of a proposed $4.5 billion Baton Rouge Loop — the CRISIS analysis did not look at the loop as a whole.
The 90- to 105-mile beltway would encircle the Baton Rouge region and would be funded with tolls.
For all the hope of cooperation, the report also treads carefully into some controversial ground that has divided the region.
For example, while the analysis looks at several new river crossings and says one is needed, the report does not say which one is needed. Leaders in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes have sparred over crossing sites in their respective parishes.
Under the CRISIS analysis, each project’s projected reduction in vehicle hours of travel was compared against cost estimates.
Those numbers show 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.
A crossing between Brusly and Addis that ties La. 415 to La. 30 would provide slightly more savings in travel time for about $1.1 billion, $300 million less than the best Iberville site, CRISIS found.
But Kirkpatrick said CRISIS decided to let DOTD finish its study on a new bridge site between the I-10 bridge and the Sunshine Bridge near Donaldsonville.
Also, for several years, engineers who study Baton Rouge’s traffic grid have argued that the U.S. 190 bridge has under-used traffic capacity. Routing more traffic to that bridge would be one cheaper way of moving more traffic over the river, they have argued.
The CRISIS analysis proposes using one of two highway improvements to send traffic to that bridge.
One of them, the $780 million North Bypass, a segment of the Baton Rouge Loop concept, has generated opposition in Livingston Parish for many years.
The new 40-mile highway would break north from I-12 in the Walker area, link up with the U.S. 190 bridge and then hook back with I-10 west of La. 415 in West Baton Rouge Parish.
On Thursday, the Livingston Parish Council voted for a third time to oppose the loop as part of a last public comment period for the first phase of the project’s environmental review.
The other option to route traffic to the U.S. 190 bridge, according to CRISIS, is the BUMP, or inner loop.
The Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan would upgrade Airline Highway to an interstate-style highway and connect I-10 with U.S. 190, I-110 and I-12 at a cost of $775 million.
Mallett said the Legislature has appropriated $3.5 million to study the BUMP. The Louisiana Transportation Authority last year did not approve going forward with a public-private partnership for the proposal but told DOTD to finish its feasibility study.
CRISIS was formed because the capital region’s transportation infrastructure situation is uniquely dire among Louisiana’s metro areas. Baton Rouge ranks third worst among the nation’s midsized cities for traffic congestion and 11th worst for road conditions.
“This study confirms the reality business and industry have been experiencing for years; the infrastructure needs of the capital region are not being met, and it is time for immediate action,” said CRISIS Co-chairman Tom Yura, senior vice president and general manager at BASF in Geismar.
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