Roads (copy)

A bid to launch the long-delayed La. Hwy. 415 connector in West Baton Rouge Parish, and ease traffic problems across the Baton Rouge area, breezed through a key Louisiana House committee Tuesday.

The measure, House Bill 578, would earmark $25 million a year for six years using a portion of proceeds from the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Another $25 million would be used for five years to upgrade La. Hwy. 1 south between Golden Meadow and Leeville, as well as private funds.

Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen, who spoke in favor of the bill, said he thinks the legislation has a bright outlook.

"I think the prospects are very good," Ward said after the meeting. "Both projects have a significant impact not just where they sit but into the entire regions."

The measure cleared the all-important House Appropriations Committee without objection and next faces action on the House floor.

West Baton Rouge Parish was awarded a $5.5 million grant in 2017 for final plans on the connector.

But surveying work has been delayed for nearly two years on the $130 million upgrade.

Louisiana is getting $53.3 million per year for another 13 years from BP PLC to compensate the state for economic damages caused by the spill.

Under a 2014 state law, the money goes to the state's "rainy day" fund and into a trust fund for the elderly.

However, Senate leaders have previously raised the possibility of redirecting the money into highways amid the state's $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

Ward said backups on the west side of the Mississippi River represent a chokepoint for the region, including in March when bridge repairs caused massive backups.

"It honestly gridlocked the entire five-parish region every morning and every evening and on some days it absolutely gridlocked the region for a 24-hour period non-stop," Ward told the committee.

"We have been looking for avenues to do something," he said.

The project would give commuters an alternative north-south route along the Intracoastal canal.

Motorists could use the La. 415/Lobdell exit that now dead-ends at the Intracoastal canal to reach a flyover that would connect with La. 1 south between Port Allen and Plaquemine.

Backups on La. 1 are daily fare, especially during morning and evening rush hours.

Backers of the bill noted that La. 1 is heavily used by big trucks servicing ExxonMobil and other plants along the corridor.

Jesse McCormick, lobbyist for Associated General Contractors, said while his group does not typically endorse specific projects this one is an exception.

McCormick noted that, under the plan, half of oil spill proceeds would eventually be used for bridges and preservation and the other half for new projects.

"It will be the largest single investment in the last 30 years for our roads," he said. "It is an incredible bill and a once in a lifetime opportunity."

The House sponsor of the bill is Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma. 


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.