Baton Rouge's traffic gridlock an unlikely statewide issue in Louisiana governor's race _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Mid-afternoon traffic on the Horace Wilkinson Bridge, connecting Baton Rouge and Port Allen via I-10, backs up as drivers anticipate heading east at the I-10/I-110 split, Friday, Apr. 24, 2015. Traffic gridlock in Baton Rouge has suddenly morphed into a statewide issue, with every contender for governor rolling out a plan and some even bickering over how to repair a problem exit on Interstate 10.

Traffic gridlock in Baton Rouge has suddenly morphed into a statewide issue, with every contender for governor rolling out a plan and some even bickering over how to repair a problem exit on Interstate 10.

Democrat John Bel Edwards said a new bridge across the Mississippi River is part of the answer.

Republican Scott Angelle wants to look at the bridge option, toll roads and other steps.

Republican Jay Dardenne, disputing fellow Republican David Vitter, wants to build a new Washington Street exit, not relocate the current one.

And Vitter, a U.S. senator from Metairie, is running radio advertisements that call for moving that exit.

Most of the proposals coincided with three public meetings last week by the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The gatherings were aimed at coming up with solutions for the daily backups that plague the 4-mile corridor between the I-10 bridge and the I-10/12 split.

The issue involves an interstate that started going up in 1963, when Baton Rouge had about 150,000 residents, compared with roughly 800,000 in the metropolitan area today.

DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas said one of the key options under review is adding a new lane in each direction along the route for up to $350 million. LeBas works for Gov. Bobby Jindal, who leaves office in January.

The state’s timeline means construction on any improvement plan would not start before the end of the first term for the next governor — around 2020.

The fact that all four contenders have waded into the debate shows the closeness of the race, said Joshua Stockley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

“It forces them to address even the minutiae of metropolitan areas,” Stockley said. “In a regular year, in a regular election cycle, I doubt that the expansion of I-10, beyond the Mayor’s Office, would draw anybody’s attention.”

Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary for DOTD, said officials hope to zero in on several options for improvements by next spring or summer.

“We should have several alternatives, and then we are going to take that into the environmental phase and do very detailed evaluations of the environmental impact of each of those,” Kalivoda said.

That stage alone will take up to three years to finish.

Those and other facts suggest that, aside from any heated arguments over I-10 widening, motorists need to know what Jindal’s potential successors have in mind.

Edwards, who, like other West Point graduates, received a degree in engineering, said in a prepared statement that Louisiana’s $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs means the state needs a governor “with more than a minimal commitment to solving traffic issues solely in the Baton Rouge area.

“Nothing short of a new bridge over the river will truly address the traffic issues in Baton Rouge that are hurting businesses and frustrating drivers,” he said.

Edwards, a state representative from Amite, said he also favors using another $75 million per year from the state’s capital outlay fund for transportation needs.

In his own written plan, Dardenne disputed Vitter’s proposal to move the Washington Street exit — a key chokepoint for traffic leaving the bridge and headed to I-10 eastbound.

“We don’t need to move the Washington Street exit,” Dardenne said. “We need to add an additional exit on the left side of I-10.

“Doing so will prevent the use of the approach to Washington Street as a lane by drivers during rush hour, which is a major cause of existing afternoon bottlenecks as those drivers try to merge from the exit lane into the main lanes of I-10.”

Dardenne, a Baton Rouge resident who is lieutenant governor, also wants to expand flex time for state employees so more are traveling during less-congested hours.

He also wants to enlist the help of downtown businesses to launch similar flex times and coordinate with employers on the west side of the river with their own staggered shifts.

“Those are short-term partial solutions, but we all know that in the long term, the real issue is funding, both for a new bridge across the river and for road maintenance,” he said.

Angelle, a member of the Public Service Commission who lives in Breaux Bridge, said in an email response to question that Baton Rouge traffic congestion is a major problem that needs to be addressed now.

One way to do so, he said, is to decentralize DOTD so local governments can take a regional approach to solving road troubles.

“I also support building toll roads, where economically feasible, and expanding the potential for a new bridge across the Mississippi south of Baton Rouge,” Angelle wrote.

DOTD’s latest push is the third time since 2000 that widening I-10 has been broached.

Political opposition, including criticism from long-standing business owners around the Perkins Road overpass, killed that effort.

Kalivoda, a veteran DOTD official who watched the plan unfold, said the discussion is different this time.

“I think the traffic volumes are much, much worse, the congestion is much, much worse and people’s frustration is much higher than it was at that time,” he said.

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