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Traffic begins to stall on southbound Interstate 110 just before the Mississippi River Bridge at the Interstate 10/ Interstate 110 split, Thursday, July 26, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

An $8.8 million project aimed at easing traffic problems near the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge may be finished next month.

The state is opening a new, Terrace Avenue exit off Interstate 110 South.

Work began last August and was supposed to be finished this month.

"They are a little behind," said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

"I think we are looking closer to August, September," Wilson said. "I am thinking late August. The major lifting is done."

The project was unveiled with fanfare on July 23, 2018.

State, federal and local officials were on hand, including Gov. John Bel Edwards. U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who also participated, called the project a traffic "game changer."

The new exit is designed to end daily traffic backups caused by southbound motorists crossing multiple lanes of traffic to reach the Washington Street exit. That happens at the same time eastbound motorists are leaving the bridge, and often crossing several lanes in the opposite direction at the same time.

It is not unusual for motorists headed for the Washington Street exit to come to a complete stop on the coast-to-coast interstate to reach their destination.

"What this is going to do is give an opportunity to get off the interstate earlier than going to Washington Street," said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

The affected area is in Smith's House district as well as the Senate district seat she is seeking this year.

"I think this is going to alleviate some of the traffic," Smith said. "Hopefully we will see some better traffic flow."

About 98,000 cars and trucks use the corridor daily.

Wilson said the new exit will not be a panacea for I-10 traffic problems. But he said it will reduce the traffic weaving evident today when drivers head for Washington Street. The new design means the Washington Street exit will be used only by traffic leaving the bridge.

Signs and stripes will direct southbound traffic on I-110 to the Terrace Avenue/Washington Street exit. That means motorists will end up on the same street as they do now but slightly north.

Wilson said the new exit will also benefit $360 million plans to widen I-10 from the bridge to the I-10/12 split.

The work is being financed with federal dollars that the state landed in a national competition.

Another interstate upgrade – adding high occupancy vehicles lanes to Interstate 12 – may be underway in early 2020 instead of this fall, officials said.

The project, which stems from a state law that won final approval in May, involves converting unusually wide shoulders on I-12  to HOV lanes in both directions.

The original target was a stretch on I-12 between Walker and the I-10/12 split.

Additional lane each direction for 15 mile stretch on I-12 now one step away from approval

The new one is from Satsuma to the split — 14 or 15 miles. That heavily-traveled section of I-12 is the site of near daily traffic jams.

"That is really where the demand is," Wilson said.

The lanes will be available for cars and trucks with two or more occupants during peak hours.

Wilson said the lanes may be available to all motorists during off-peak hours for a fee.

Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, sponsor of the bill that paved the way for HOV lanes, said use of the lanes during non-peak times was the subject of a recent meeting with DOTD officials.

The agency sets for the rules for the new lanes.

Erdey said he remains optimistic that the changes will ameliorate traffic.

State officials are grappling with a handful of technical issues, including how the HOV lanes will be enforced.

Like the Terrace Avenue exit, rain has slowed work on a $72 million project to widen I-10 from Highland Road to La. Hwy. 73 in suburban Ascension Parish.

The work, which began in early 2018, was initially set to take 2 1/2 years, around mid 2020.

Wilson said it is too early to say when the work will be finished.

The project includes the addition of new lanes in each direction over the 6.5-mile stretch.

More than half of the pricetag – about $40 million – is coming from unused federal highway dollars in other states.

Wilson and the governor regularly note that innovative financing is no substitute for a stable funding source. Louisiana has a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

A bid by the Edwards administration to boost the state gas tax by 17 cents per gallon – $510 million per year – died in 2017 without a vote in either chamber.

A long-shot bid to revive the effort in the Legislature earlier this year went nowhere.

Email Will Sentell