Roadwork on the La. 1 bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway in West Baton Rouge Parish is causing massive traffic headaches, prompting local elected officials, state transportation administrators and law enforcement authorities to meet Thursday to discuss the issue and let the public know: “We feel your pain.”

But, there are few options for relief until the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development completes work that started several weeks ago to repair joints on the bridge, said Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot.

The idea, he said, is that reinforcing those joints will help extend the life of the almost 60-year-old bridge until the state and parish secure enough funds to replace it. But in attempting to fix the longer term issue, crews have created an even bigger traffic issue in the short term.

The work crews recently placed six 1-inch steel plates across some of the 57 joints under repair to cover open holes in the concrete until crews can get in to secure the joints. Contractors have been closing the road’s left lane each night from 7 p.m. until 4 a.m. to work, but the traffic congestion isn’t caused by the lane closures so much as the plates themselves.

DOTD project director Chad Robique said the posted speed limit for drivers to cross over the steel plates is 45 miles per hour, but wary drivers often slow down to cross them, sometimes almost to a stop. That has a domino effect in sometimes miles-long backups. He said his office has received phone calls from frustrated drivers saying their commute northbound on La. 1 has exceeded two hours in some cases.

The lengthy meeting often mirrored the frustrated citizen comments over social media and in irate calls and emails to local and state officials. The outcry led to the somewhat impromptu gathering of officials Thursday that included the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, parish council members, Port Allen mayor, school board officials, and DOTD.

Can law enforcement place units along La. Highway 1 northbound to ease congestion? How are we addressing road rage? How long will these backups and construction last?

Many of the questions didn’t have definitive answers, but officials agreed to immediately begin placing law enforcement units at the most heavily congested intersections and barricading adjacent service roads to ensure only local traffic passed through those areas.

The short-term solutions are “Band Aid” fixes that won’t solve the problem but will give drivers some assurance that there is official presence in the case of road rage or dangerous behaviors like overtaking on shoulders, Berthelot said.

Sheriff’s Office traffic unit director Lt. Ken Albarez said there’s been no increase in crashes or road rage incidents since the work began, staying steady at an average of two wrecks per day south of the intracoastal.

“I’m not trying to minimize it at all, it is a headache, but we have no other options at this point,” Albarez said. “Chad and them are doing the best they can… if somebody’s got a better solution I’m all for it, you just cannot make (drivers) go over those plates.”

West Baton Rouge parish school board member Jason Manola was one of several officials in attendance who questioned if ongoing frustrations could lead to road rage instances. The project is not slated to be complete until late May, meaning at least two more months of traffic woes.

“My biggest concern is the road rage, you see it, they’re playing chicken and something’s going to happen,” he said.

Brusly Mayor Scot Rhodes cited an impact to local businesses because many residents are avoiding the stores and restaurants along La. 1 that have become too difficult to access, and others asked if the parish council needs to appropriate emergency funds to address the traffic problem, to which Berthelot replied that it may be worth discussing in future.

Robique, with DOTD, said by Friday morning the work on the left lane should be complete, which is expected to help ease the congestion some, and DOTD is assessing whether to place rubber strips around the steel plates to help smooth the transition for vehicles passing over them, meaning they may approach at a more consistent speed.


Follow Emma Kennedy on Twitter, @byemmakennedy.