In a change from the initial announcement, Louisiana's transportation chief said Thursday he doubts that Gov. John Bel Edwards' $600 million highway plan will allow the state to widen Interstate 10 completely from the Mississippi River bridge to the I-10/12 split in Baton Rouge.
Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said the key question is how much of the 3.5-mile corridor can be widened for $350 million, which would be allocated for the project.
Wilson told a powerful legislative committee that state officials would finish the work "as far as we can" in a bid to reduce congestion.
The plan to widen Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge would not only add a lane in each direction.
Even partial completion would have a major impact, he said, and ease backups on a section of coast-to-coast interstate used by about 170,000 vehicles daily.
"We could break it into smaller, manageable projects to get it done," Wilson said of the Baton Rouge work.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' $600 million plan to widen Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge and other road projects cleared its first hurdle Wednesday.
Wilson's latest comments differ from the governor's Jan. 12 announcement, when the Baton Rouge and other proposals were touted as an innovative way to finance long-delayed road work.
Expanding Interstate 10 from the Mississippi River bridge to the I-10/12 split will take at least five years to complete, Louisiana's transpor…
The DOTD secretary has previously mentioned in passing that $350 million might not be enough to widen all the corridor, but his comments Thursday were his most detailed on the subject.
In an interview after the meeting, Wilson said a big unknown is how much of the corridor needs to be rebuilt, not just upgraded.
"What we are doing right now is looking at constructability," he said. "And part of that is understanding how much of what is there now needs to be rebuilt.
"If a big portion needs to be rebuilt that is going to drive the cost up," Wilson said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' $350 million plan to widen Interstate 10 from the Mississippi River bridge to the I-10/I-12 split in Baton Rouge has re…
He said pledging to widen the entire corridor would drive up state debt and spark opposition from lawmakers.
Asked if $350 million will finish the work Wilson said, "I don't think that will take care of the entire corridor."
"It may, but I am not that confident that this 60-year-old structure is not going to have some pieces of it that need to be replaced, not just repaired, not just widened."
The effort is aimed at adding a new lane in each direction from the bridge to the I-10/12 split.
Wilson said the work will not be sequential, which means sections of the corridor could be upgraded, such as stretches from the bridge to the LSU and City Park lakes and around College Drive.
The governor's package would also make improvements on I-10 in Kenner, at Loyola Avenue, to improve access to a soon-to-be-revamped Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
Wilson testified for about 90 minutes before the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.
No votes on the governor's highway proposal were taken.
The plan has been endorsed by the House-Senate transportation committees and also faces review by the State Bond Commission.
The proposal envisions using federal bonds to finance the work, with the money repaid yearly for 12 years with federal dollars – up to $67 million – that would otherwise be used for other interstate work.
Earlier the plans won praise from Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, a member of the committee and one of the Legislature's most influential figures. "I want to commend you for picking some of these," Alario told Wilson.
"They certainly all have economic benefits for our state," he said.
"Nobody who ever comes around Baton Rouge doesn't understand the need for that," Alario said, a reference to the I-10 widening proposal.
Alario added, "If you wait another 10 years these projects will cost twice as much and we will never get to them anyhow."
Other panel members were complimentary of the plans.
Some legislators focused on the debt caused by the proposal, and the possibility of overruns.
Other work in Edwards' plan is up to $12.5 million to replace the Belle Chasse Tunnel and roadwork in north Louisiana to improve access to Barksdale Air Force Base.
Wilson said that, if the Legislature had approved a state gas tax last year, he would not be trying to finance state projects with federal bonds.
Louisiana has a nearly $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.
A bid to increase Louisiana's gas tax by up to 17 cents per gallon – around $500 million per year – died last year without a vote in either chamber.