Accident with injuries closes Belle Chasse Tunnel early Monday; all lanes now open _lowres

Photo provided by Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office -- A multiple-vehicle crash in injuries shut down southbound lanes in the Bell Chasse Tunnel on Monday morning, May 16, 2016.

The state of Louisiana is receiving $45 million from the federal government to help replace the Belle Chasse tunnel and movable bridge, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday.

The aid, a key piece of the funding puzzle, will come in the form of an Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, grant.

"The INFRA grant is another demonstration of the innovative tools that the state must utilize to improve its crumbling infrastructure," Edwards said in a statement.

"We certainly appreciate the Trump administration's attention to the state's needs and will continue to work closely with the federal government to address our needs," he added.

The project will cost $122 million.

It is a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership for Louisiana, which means it would include both public and private dollars.

The Legislature authorized that funding method in 2001.

Motorists now use two southbound lanes through the tunnel on La. Hwy. 23 and two northbound lanes via the bridge.

About 33,000 travelers use the route daily across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

The request for the aid, which was submitted on Nov. 2, sparked an outpouring of support from Democrats and Republicans alike as well as local business and industry leaders.

"I'm excited that Plaquemines Parish will soon benefit from this $45 million grant, and will now be able to move forward with the replacement of the Belle Chasse Tunnel and Perez Bridge, which are critical to daily commuters and hurricane evacuations," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican, and U.S. Reps. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, Ralph Abraham, R-Alto and Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, in November urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to approve the state's request.

"The Belle Chasse bridge and tunnel is an important access point to Plaquemines Parish for residents and those traveling to and from the Naval Air Station or other businesses located along Highway 23," said Cassidy, also in a statement.

"In addition, marine traffic navigating the Intracoastal Waterway must account for the bridge," he said. "Replacing both the bridge and tunnel is long overdue, so this grant is good news."

The movable bridge was built in 1957.

The tunnel opened in 1955.

Under the plan, both structures would be replaced by a fixed span, four-lane bridge, possibly by 2022-23.

U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, said "the tunnel leaks so much that it's basically a car wash, and the bridge isn't much better."

Kennedy said, "This project will stimulate industrial growth, improve transportation efficiency in daily commutes and increase hurricane evacuation capacity."

DOTD officials are in the process of picking a private partner, which would maintain the bridge through a contract with the state.

A total of 20 letters of interest were received, officials said in April.

The state has gotten six statements of qualifications, and from that list several firms will be asked to submit proposals.

Private firms get involved as a way to ensure a long-term revenue stream.

Tolls would be used for operations and maintenance.

"While tolling is not my first choice to addressing our infrastructure woes, it is certainly a tool at our disposal that we should consider," Edwards said.

Another $38.2 million will come through federal dollars sent to the state Department of Transportation and Development and $12 million, also federal dollars, to the Regional Planning Commission.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.