A one-minute ad touting the need for a new bridge over the Mississippi River started airing on local TV stations last week.
State Sen. Rick Ward III, a Port Allen Republican who stars in the commercial, says he's trying to build awareness and public support ahead of plans from a five-parish transportation authority tasked with developing a construction plan and funding mechanism for a new bridge and supporting infrastructure.
The ad, paid for through Ward's campaign fund, is getting praises from leaders in the parishes that have been directly impacted by the recent closure of the Sunshine Bridge, which sits on a sliver of St. James Parish land that bisects Ascension Parish. The leaders say the bridge's closure has exacerbated the region's traffic issues, making it all the more important to find a way to build a new bridge in the area.
A jacking system to realign the damaged Sunshine Bridge and facilitate its repair is under construction and expected to arrive at the St. Jame…
"Since everything that has happened with the Sunshine bridge, everyone's radar is up more than ever before," Ward said. "I wanted to take that and on election night bring awareness and capture everyone's attention to get as many people on board to realize what potential we have to do it."
The ad is a precursor to the work that will be done by the Capital Region Infrastructure Authority, which was created this spring through legislation Ward sponsored. The authority is composed of appointees from East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Iberville, Livingston and Ascension parishes, and the secretary of the state's Department of Transportation and Development.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome attended the authority's first meeting a few months ago and says she plans to be an active participant in the conversation about a new bridge, a project she says would fall in line with her MoveBR 30-year, half-cent sales tax proposal.
Broome intends to use revenue generated by the sales tax, up for voter consideration on Dec. 8, to pay for upgrades and improvements to roadways throughout the city-parish.
A bill gaining traction in the state Legislature aims to tackle the Baton Rouge metro area’s traffic quandary by getting officials from the re…
"There's no denying a new bridge will be beneficial," she said. Some of the projects in MoveBR would end up helping the bridge if the structure is built closer to the southwest part of the parish, she added.
In addition to devising how and where a new bridge could be built, Ward's bill also gives the authority the power to propose fees and/or taxes that would fund whatever traffic solutions the body proposes.
Just a new bridge alone has a estimated price tag of at least $1 billion.
That's where the ad comes in.
Any funding measures would have to win voter approval. A few preliminary ideas include a public/private partnership that would allow the authority to build the bridge and pay for it through tolls at the structure or sales taxes across the five-parish region.
"The PAC was set up for two reasons," Ward said. "To let people know if they vote on something, it's not another study to determine how to build a bridge. They're voting on how to finance its construction."
Ward added, "And I wanted to do some outreach; educate people to say, 'Look, this is coming. And we want you to be prepared to vote on it.'"
Can't see video below? Click here.
The authority will start meeting on a more regular basis next year. Ward would like to see a proposal in front of voters by late 2019.
Ward is listed as the CEO of the "New Bridge PAC" in contracts with two local TV stations on which the ad aired last week.
According to copies of those contracts, Ward spent $8,000 to air the commercial four times on WBRZ-TV on election day, and another $10,000 for two ad spots on WAFB-TV last week.
In the ad, Ward says the region's traffic gridlock is hurting the local economy, characterizing the daily congestion as a "grinding standstill." He then says: "There's another grinding standstill. The failure of government to address our largest, single problem," which he says is traffic.
Besides getting the money to build a bridge, the other potential setback could be getting voters and the authority members to agree on where to put the bridge.
Most agree it should be located somewhere south of the existing Mississippi River bridge along Interstate 10. But debate continues over whether it should be in West Baton Rouge or Iberville Parish. There have been several proposed locations made public in both parishes.
"I don't want to hear nothing about a bridge in West Baton Rouge Parish," said J. Mitchell Ourso, Iberville's parish president. "Iberville deserves this bridge. We have all the industry and is producing the traffic that's causing this congestion."
If Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso has a white whale, it’s in the form of a new Mississippi River bridge connecting his divided parish.
West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot is hoping the data from traffic flow studies will be the overarching factor in the bridge's location. That way, the region can avoid building a bridge that fails to solve the traffic problems.
"Too far south, it's not going to do any good for the I-10 bridge," he said.
Berthelot and Ourso both think Ward's plan to get out early with the campaign through the TV ad was a good move. But Ourso said he's heard from parish leaders in Livingston there could be some reluctance to get voter support there given the recent failure of a sales tax proposal from the Sheriff's Office to fund school resource officers and department operations.
Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks did not return calls seeking comment.
Ourso also has concerns any future tax proposal could have an uphill battle in East Baton Rouge Parish as well should voters approve Broome's MoveBR plan.
"How could they pass another tax to support a new bridge?" Ourso said.