PORT ALLEN — State transportation officials are considering a number of fixes to the daily chaos of traffic snarls besetting West Baton Rouge Parish motorists, short of building an expensive new bridge across the Mississippi River.
The ideas range from a dedicated traffic lane on U.S. 190 and closing the Interstate 10 Washington Street exit to building a new Intracoastal Canal bridge.
The traffic woes apparently have caused more drivers to use the U.S. 190 Mississippi River bridge — commonly referred to as the “old bridge” — to avoid the headaches of using the “new” bridge on Interstate 10.
And that increased use has prompted the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development this summer to mark off a section of U.S. 190 eastbound near La. 1 North in Port Allen to ease the traffic flow for the hundreds of motorists using the old bridge to bypass traffic on I-10.
Despite not being the shiny new bridge that residents on the west side of the Mississippi River are clamoring for, Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot said, DOTD’s experiment will ease some of the daily traffic woes that continue to metastasize into his parish from the Baton Rouge area.
“Every day, around 4 to 5 p.m., it starts backing up on La. 1 because people aren’t doing a good job of merging into the Highway 190 traffic,” Berthelot said. “It’s creating a traffic backup on La. 1 because people have to stop to try and merge in.”
Essentially, DOTD will use plastic cones to force eastbound traffic along U.S. 190 — a two-lane thoroughfare — into the left lane, creating a dedicated lane for traffic merging in from La. 1.
Should the experiment ease traffic congestion, DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett says, the department will permanently restripe the corridor.
“We’re looking at the end of summer to do the test,” Mallett said in an email. “We modeled it, and it looks promising.”
Mallett said the test project will be separate from the night striping and sign replacement project along the U.S. 190 bridge that DOTD also has slated this summer.
“We haven’t worked up the cost yet because we aren’t sure we will do it,” Mallett added about the dedicated lane project. “It will be minor striping modifications and relatively inexpensive.”
Although DOTD doesn’t have hard data backing up claims of the old bridge’s increased use, Mallett said, field observations indicate more drivers are migrating across the U.S. 190 bridge daily.
According to a 2014 DOTD traffic count, approximately 108,000 cars are using the new bridge each day. And a 2013 count shows that 47,000 vehicles a day travel the Intracoastal Waterway bridge along La. 1 in West Baton Rouge Parish — a place where only 24,573 people live, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Each day, the bridge becomes a parking lot as drivers crossing the river into Baton Rouge try to squeeze into the eastbound I-10 rush-hour traffic. That conundrum is prompting the increased traffic along U.S. 190 as motorists use La. 1 South to cut through Port Allen to cross into Baton Rouge via the old bridge.
This month, the state’s high-tech traffic monitoring system went online with a digital sign along La. 1 in Port Allen that gives motorists an idea how long they can expect to sit in traffic waiting to cross the new bridge into Baton Rouge. That endeavor, however, was widely criticized by parish leaders.
In March, DOTD held a series of public meetings focusing on I-10 corridor improvements from Essen Lane in Baton Rouge to La. 415 in West Baton Rouge Parish. The improvements include a widening plan that would add a lane in each direction between the I-10 Mississippi River bridge and the I-10/12 split at a cost of up to $350 million. The project is in the planning stage, and a feasibility study is being prepared.
West Baton Rouge officials are most interested in an alternative interchange improvement involving the closure of the Washington Street exit along I-10 in Baton Rouge. The spot is prone to bottlenecking as vehicles traveling eastbound on I-10 attempting to merge into traffic flowing along I-110 South must watch out for vehicles trying to exit the interstate at Washington Street.
The Washington Street exit causes the daily traffic congestion along the I-10 and La. 1 interchange, West Baton Rouge officials say.
DOTD has said the widening project and Washington Street projects are cheaper fixes than a new bridge, which has an estimated $1 billion price tag.
“We’re hoping they get the money to get that Washington Street exit closed to make traffic flow easier eastbound,” Berthelot said. “(DOTD) is also planning to build a new Intracoastal bridge in 2020.”
Berthelot said DOTD’s proposal involves building a new structure near the same location as the existing Intracoastal bridge with three 12-foot-wide vehicle lanes traveling north- and southbound and two 10-foot-wide shoulder lanes. The proposed northbound lane’s outermost roadway would be dedicated to funneling traffic onto I-10 with metal guardrails separating La. 1 drivers from the I-10 motorists — similar to what DOTD is doing along U.S. 190.
DOTD has asked West Baton Rouge Parish leaders to submit their opinions on the proposal by June 17.
“It would probably take them two to three years to build the whole thing. Right now, they’re just getting public comment,” he said, “but I know that would help traffic going northbound through Port Allen.”
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