022617 Iberville river bridge

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.

It’s elusive prey the longtime parish president has been stalking for years. He wants a bridge to help solve some of the region’s vexing traffic woes, and he specifically wants it built in his parish.

Now, Ourso has turned to consultants to lobby state leaders on the parish’s behalf to see that his dream becomes a reality and to fend off any effort to build a new bridge elsewhere.

"I'm not going to let this happen without Iberville getting its fair share," he said. "Iberville needs a bridge, and that's the way it's going to be."

Ourso disclosed last week that the parish is spending approximately $2,500 a month on consultants with the TJC Group to help lobby state leaders on the parish's behalf.

Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot, president of neighboring West Baton Rouge Parish, isn’t pleased.

He thinks Ourso's actions are counterproductive to solving the region's traffic issues and interject politics where they ought not be.

"Mitch is doing the same thing that happened with the (John James) Audubon Bridge," Berthelot said. "You start lobbying people, and we're going to end up with the same thing you have over there: a bridge that serves only a few and not helping what we need to get fixed."

Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks agreed with Berthelot. He said the decision on where to build a new bridge needs to be data driven and not politically influenced.

"If we're going to build this thing, I want it where we're going to get the best bang for a buck because traffic is a nightmare right now, and we all know that," Ricks said.

Tim Johnson, founder and president of the TJC Group, told Iberville Parish leaders recently the decision on where to build a new bridge definitely will be a political one that's shaped by who's sitting at the table with state leaders and stakeholders in the region's traffic crisis.

"If you're not sitting at the table, you're on the menu," Johnson said. "We're at least three years away from breaking ground on a bridge. We're going to do everything we can to keep the Iberville location alive."

State leaders have priced construction of a new bridge at approximately $1 billion. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development is brainstorming ways now on how to pay for $13 billion backlog of traffic and bridge improvements and $16 billion in megaprojects, including the new bridge.

State engineers and traffic experts say building another bridge south of the Interstate 10 bridge at Baton Rouge will reduce bottle-necking that has a rippling effect on the delays plaguing the La. 1 corridor in West Baton Rouge Parish.

The delays are largely attributable to the large number of commuters and truck drivers who must cross the river every day for jobs and deliveries at industrial sites and chemical plants in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes.

Berthelot prefers a new bridge crossing the Mississippi River near Sid Richardson Road in West Baton Rouge Parish. He said that could divert much of the traffic on the I-10 bridge, funneling it toward River Road and La. 30 in East Baton Rouge Parish, a corridor that is included in the state's list of traffic projects.

That site is a prime location, he said, because it's an undeveloped area in both parishes that wouldn't present any challenges from residential communities.

But Matt Jewell, chairman of the Iberville Parish Council, said it would be "ludicrous" to build another bridge in West Baton Rouge Parish.

Jewell and most of the council members are throwing their support behind Ourso's vision to have the new bridge located near Bayou Goula off La. 405. That proposed bridge would cross over into east Iberville near St. Gabriel.

Ourso maintains it's a more productive site and that locating a bridge there would create an easier connection for his parish's eastern and western corners.

"The site is more expensive, but it's the most productive to take care of the traffic they're dealing with in West Baton Rouge," Ourso said. "And that bridge ties into the traffic in Ascension Parish."

Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa said the closer the new bridge is to his parish, the quicker he thinks La. 30 will get the attention it needs to absorb the increasingly heavy traffic his parish is experiencing.

But Berthelot argues that Ourso's preferred choice is too far south to have any positive impact on the traffic along the I-10 corridor near the current bridge.

As a compromise, Berthelot said, he'd be willing to have the bridge located near the Dow Chemical Plant off La. 1148 in Plaquemine, which is in Iberville Parish. That hypothetical bridge would cross over the Mississippi River onto the La. 991/River Road corridor, which also is in Iberville Parish.

He said he feels commuters would be more inclined to use that bridge because of its proximity to the chemical plants and La. 1 South.

"I'm not against Iberville; I'm against where Mitch wants to do it," Berthelot said. "If (his location) solves the problems, I'd be the first to congratulate him. But it's not, and the data shows that."

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.