051319 Lobdell 415 flyover La 1

Legislation to pave the way for a new lane in each direction on Interstate 12 between the I-10/12 split and Walker, and ease daily traffic backups, won final legislative approval Thursday when the House passed it 82-2.

The measure, Senate Bill 84, will allow the state Department of Transportation and Development to designate high occupancy lanes on the 15-mile stretch, and plans are underway to do just that.

The new travel lanes would be crafted from what are now unusually wide shoulder spaces.

On the same day, a bid to fast-track a major road project in West Baton Rouge Parish – the La. Highway 415 connector – using some of the proceeds from the 2010 Gulf oil spill cleared a major hurdle Thursday when the Senate Finance Committee approved it.

The measure, House Bill 578, has already won approval in the House and next faces action in the full Senate.

Both bills are aimed at providing relief to the traffic-weary Baton Rouge area, where backups and delays plague motorists seven days a week, especially on I-12 and I-10.

The HOV measure, whose chief sponsor is Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, sailed through the Legislature with little debate.

"This is a huge victory for people who travel I-12 along Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes," Erdey said after the vote.

He said striping and other work could begin this fall.

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, House sponsor, noted that the plan has been studied since 2015.

"It would be very efficient," Pope told the House. "Those of you who travel east and west on I-12 know that it is necessary."

DOTD officials, who backed the legislation, are waiting for the results of a study by the Denver-based engineering firm Arcadis, possibly in July.

"They are confident it would come back reflecting a positive recommendation for the HOV lane," Erdey said of state officials.

The HOV sections would require cars and trucks to carry at least one passenger aside from the driver.

Signs and stripes would cost about $750,000, officials said.

Meanwhile, the La. 415 connector bill was heavily revamped in the state Senate committee.

It now includes a wide range of other highway work with settlement dollars, including $150 million for Interstate 49 South; $50 million for La. 3241 between I-12 and Bush in St. Tammany Parish and $100 million to widen and upgrade the Jimmie Davis bridge in Bossier City.

What was a $275 million measure for two projects now totals $689 million for 10 projects.

The La. 415 connector would provide a three-mile flyover between the La. 415/Lobdell exit and a point on La. 1 between Port Allen and Plaquemine.

Doing so, backers say, will ease traffic on the "new" Mississippi River bridge, the Intracoastal Bridge and La. 1.

"This is probably a once in a 50-year opportunity," said state Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen and Senate sponsor of the bill.

"We have struggled with infrastructure, we have struggled with bridges," Ward told the committee.

"We finally have the opportunity to try and address those needs," he said.

Louisiana has a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

The work would be financed by reshuffling how dollars from the Deepwater Horizon disaster are allocated.

The state is set to get about $700 million from the settlement over the next 13 years.

Under the plan, the La. 415 project would get $25 million per year for five years.

Another $150 million over five years would go for construction of an 8-mile stretch of elevated highway between Golden Meadow and Leeville.

Those allocations, as well as possible federal dollars, are supposed to be enough to finish the projects.

The La. 415 work is set to cost about $145 million.

Under current rules, settlement dollars are divided between the state's Rainy Day fund, Medicaid Trust Fund and Health Trust Fund.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, in something of a surprise, said last week he would be inclined to sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.

The Edwards administration had previously taken a wait-and-see approach to the measure.

The revamped legislation would aid the long-delayed construction of La. 3241.

That work was one of 16 projects voters approved in 1989 when they endorsed a four-cent increase in the state gas tax – called TIMED.

However, the highway is one of two projects that have not been done.

Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, a member of the committee who offered the amendment, said the lack of work is embarrassing and the Deepwater bill could provide assistance. "It is constitutionally required that the state build this road," Donahue told colleagues.

Other projects added to the legislation are $20 million for a new ferry in Cameron Parish; the purchase of two cranes for the Port of New Orleans, $20 million and $15 million to widen Hooper Road from La. 3034 to La. 37.

Backers of the bill earlier planned to allow DOTD to allocate about $400 million of settlement dollars after the La. 415 and La. 1 projects in deep south Louisiana were funded.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.