021121 I-12 high occupancy lanes

A bid to create a high occupancy lane on always crowded Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge that was set to open this year may be delayed until 2022, Louisiana's transportation chief said.

"If it is in 2021 it will be late 2021," said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development. "Our goal is to absolutely have it in place by 2022."

The project involves a 15-mile stretch of I-12 between the I-10/12 split and Walker.

The plan is to convert inside shoulder space in both directions into high occupancy vehicle lanes.

The new lanes will be in addition to the three existing lanes.

Wilson said last year that DOTD planned to execute what officials call a transportation services contract rather than relying on separate agreements for design, construction and operations.

The aim was to have an agreement in place by April. "We went through the process and for various reasons, some known by us and some unknown by us, we did not have any specific interest in all three agreements," Wilson said.

The hope was the state could use what amounted to a public/private partnership, which speeds completion of the work.

Instead, it will rely on the traditional method for forging agreements on all three phases.

"It is going to take a little bit more time to coordinate them," Wilson said.

"The project will proceed but we believe it is a little more time consuming and a little more expensive format."

He added, "If you ride on the inside shoulder and it causes accidents, or you have drainage issues that you have to resolve for some of the drains and culverts, all of those things are going to have to be factored in. ... That doesn't happen every easily or quickly."

State Sen. J. Rogers Pope, R-Livingston, said the last time he talked to Wilson about the issue he understood that a contract would be awarded in March or April, which was the original plan.

"Quite frankly I am going to tell you that is disappointing," Pope said of the new timetable. "We were looking forward to it."

Pope noted that I-12 is the source of regular backups, and he said he sometimes delays leaving the State Capitol rather than sitting in traffic.

The chairmen of the House and Senate transportation committees have been notified of the change in plans.

The idea was first broached in 2015 by former state Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston.

DOTD officials authorized a feasibility study in 2017, which concluded the conversion was practical.

In 2019 the Legislature authorized Wilson to designate HOV lanes, and lawmakers whose constituents rely on often congested I-12 corridor pressed for action.

"We are still going to do it," Wilson said. "We are just changing the way we are going to deliver it."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.