Baton Rouge group encouraged as governor's candidates pledge to find solutions to road, bridge problems _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Aerial of eastbound traffic on the New Bridge in Baton Rouge, Tuesday, September 1, 2015, as drivers navigate around a stalled 18-wheeler approaching the Washington Street exit at bottom left.

Louisiana will receive $60 million in federal grant money to fast track a few major road projects in south Louisiana including the relocation of the Washington Street exit off Interstate 10 near the Mississippi River bridge — an area notorious for clogging traffic in the Capitol region.

Officials celebrated Tuesday’s announcement, calling it a major step forward in terms of correcting the serious traffic problems plaguing the state.

The grant money will directly fund a project in the Lafayette-area that was already on track for construction. But by supplanting those state dollars with federal dollars, it frees up state money to speed a handful of other projects — like the Washington Street exit — that were slogging along.

Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said thanks to the grant, Louisiana will have funds to complete the relocation of the Washington Street exit. This project, Wilson said, is expected to be opened up for construction bid by early 2018, maybe sooner.

“Whether it’s morning or afternoon, it’s a very, very dangerous intersection and it’s created ungodly bottlenecking for years and years and years,” Baton Rouge Mayor President Kip Holden said.

A short stretch near the exit is the lone spot on a 2,460-mile coast-to-coast highway where traffic narrows to one lane. Eastbound traffic leaving the bridge now includes an inside lane that forces traffic off at Washington Street. That means eastbound motorists, including operators of 18-wheelers, often make hasty moves from the Washington Street exit path to the outside lane, slowing or stopping other vehicles in adjacent lanes.

The plan is to close the exit ramp in Baton Rouge and possibly move it to the left side of Interstate 110-South, closer to downtown.

“The statistics speak for themselves, and we have among the worst traffic in the nation,” said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who says he fought to secure grant funding for the state. “This is truly solving problems for the better and that’s one reason we’re so excited.”

Baton Rouge Area Chamber President Adam Knapp said the Washington Street exit relocation was one of many major projects that needed to be done to alleviate traffic congestion.

“We are excited to hear today’s news about funding to close and relocate the Washington Street exit,” Knapp said. “Traffic congestion isn’t fixed by one project, but by many mega-projects on many transportation modes over many years.”

Specifically, the federal grant is being used to replace the pavement and add a lane to a 15-mile stretch of road between the Interstate 10 and Interstate 49 interchange and the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge near Lafayette. This area was eligible for the federal grant, called FASTLANE, because the grant targets freight and high way projects. Projects eligible for the federal money also had to be finished with their planning and design work.

More than one-third of the vehicles that travel that section of the Acadiana interstate are freight related, which made it the most competitive project given the grant parameters. That project will be opened for public bids to start construction by October of this year, Wilson said.

This is the first year of the FASTLANE federal grant program and it offered a total of $800 million to states. In April, Gov. John Bel Edwards submitted an application on behalf of the state seeking $100 million.

While Louisiana fell short of their target, the state still received enough to fund their major intended projects with some left over to advance others.

“The entire state stands to benefit from this grant,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards in a statement. “By freeing up state funds for this project, we will be in a position to redirect resources to other critical infrastructure needs across Louisiana.”

Other dollars will be freed up for designing a reconstructed interchange at Loyola Avenue for the New Orleans Airport, improving railroad crossings on the freight-rail corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and advancing the design plans of the Interstate 20/220 interchange into Barksdale. Had the state received more money, these projects could have had additional funding for planning and design, Wilson said.

While Louisiana did not get all $100 million it applied for, officials say the state fared well. There were 200 applications valued at more than $12 billion in projects seeking the same pool of money.

“Because infrastructure all across the country is a problem, everybody is looking for additional dollars — way more than the federal government has money to put up for,” Wilson said.

Over the past few months, the Washington Street exit has become something of an awkward political fight among officials who have clamored for credit for setting the relocation into motion.

In January, Mayor Holden accused the governor of taking credit away from him for alerting President Barack Obama about the Washington Street exit problems during his visit to Baton Rouge. The governor told a group of business leaders after the visit that he’d informed Obama about the traffic congestion, and Holden later disputed the governor’s account to the media.

Meanwhile, Graves has maintained that it’s his role as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that enabled him to author amendments that put Louisiana in the best position to compete for the dollars. On Tuesday, in an interview about the traffic problems, Holden casually reiterated credit for the conversation with the president.

“I just have to go back to that conversation when the president came here, and I asked him the question, ‘Are you aware that this is the only place where the interstate goes down to one lane?’” Holden said. “And his answer was very succinct. ‘No I wasn’t aware, but that is very dangerous.’”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.