051319 Lobdell 415 flyover La 1

A Baton Rouge area road project faces a crucial vote Wednesday in the Louisiana House, nearly half a century after it went on the drawing boards.

The plan is called the Louisiana Highway 415 connector and would be just west of the "new' Mississippi River bridge in West Baton Rouge Parish.

What is envisioned is a three-mile flyover with four lanes between the La. 415/Lobdell exit on Interstate 10 and La. Hwy. 1 between Port Allen and Plaquemine.

"We have been working on this project since 1972," said West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot, one of the top advocates for the plan.

Backers said the work will improve traffic near the always-congested bridge, reduce traffic on the F-rated Intracoastal Bridge used by 45,000 vehicles daily and make life easier on La. 1, a key artery for the nation's energy, oil and gas industries.

"All the more reason to advance this project while we have the available funding," state Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, and one of the sponsors of the bill said recently.

But it is how the work would be financed that is expected to spark controversy when the legislation is debated.

The bill would take more than one third of the remaining settlement proceeds from the Deepwater Horizon 2010 Gulf oil spill for two projects – the La. 415 work and construction of an elevated portion of La. 1 between Golden Meadow and Leeville in far south Louisiana.

The proposal, House Bill 578, breezed through the House Appropriations Committee on April 30 despite concerns about just two projects getting so much money.

House Majority leader Lance Harris, R-Alexandria and a member of the committee, said central Louisiana was also damaged by the spill because of the radical reduction of travelers.

"I-49 basically went dead in the summertime," Harris said during committee discussion. "I want to make sure that this is being applied statewide."

"Because I think the economic damages were statewide," Harris said. "It was not just specific to some areas."

Others have privately questioned how much saved travel time the La. 415 project would provide.

Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, chief House sponsor of the bill, said he is "cautiously optimistic" the plan will win House approval.

Magee also knows there will be efforts to re-direct how the dollars are used.

"It's Louisiana," he said. "Nobody misses an opportunity to pave roads."

The money is available because the state is getting $53.3 million annually for another 13 years from BP PLC to compensate Louisiana for damages caused by the spill.

Under a 2014 law, 45% of the money goes to the rainy day fund, 45% to the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly and 10% to the Health Trust Fund.

The bill would revamp that formula.

The new outline would parcel $25 million per year for five years for the La. 415 project and $25 million yearly for Golden Meadow-Leeville, about eight miles.

The La. 415 connector would cost between $130 million and $145 million.

The Golden Meadow-Leeville upgrade, which is about eight miles long, carries a price-tag of $343 million.

If the bill wins final approval the state is expected to apply for a federal grant to cover most of the balance on that upgrade.

After those projects are done, the rest of the money, around $439 million, would go into a new state fund.

Half would be used for bridges, maintenance and safety projects and the other half for new construction.

Backers are touting both plans as regional projects, in part to allay concerns that only two plans would get too much of the Deepwater money — about $250 million.

"These are regional economic projects," Magee said. "It is not just like repaving roads."

Berthelot said earlier that, while his parish has about 26,000 residents, nearly 45,000 cars and trucks use the Intracoastal Bridge daily.

About 35,000 trucks leave the nearby Dow plant annually, using heavily crowded La. 1.

"It is not a local problem, it is a regional problem," he said.

Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen and Senate sponsor of the bill, has said backups near the Mississippi River bridge affect travelers between Texas and Florida as well as those in West Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes.

"Currently whenever you have an incident of any kind you are looking at about a 50-to-55 mile-detour," Ward told the House committee.

The state Department of Transportation and Development did a feasibility study 30 years ago.

'It just sat on the shelf," Berthelot told House members.

An initial corridor study was done in 2002 and an environmental study in 2006.

A toll revenue study showed that collections would only cover 30 percent of the costs.

"They are both needed and been worked on for a long time," Berthelot said of the projects.

DOTD leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach. "We are just watching," DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said.

"We appreciate that they are looking at infrastructure projects," Wilson said. "They could be using all that money for all kinds of things."


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.