Erecting a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge is suddenly a hot topic.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said last week that there is no greater infrastructure priority in Louisiana.
Area lawmakers and business leaders call a new bridge the best way to relieve daily traffic troubles.
Traffic congestion has become a "cancer" in the Baton Rouge area, and a new bridge across th…
A gubernatorial task force is about to recommend ways to finance road and bridge improvements, which is critical to any bridge plan in the State Capitol.
"If we are going to ever do it, now is the time," said state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, a leader in the Baton Rouge area legislative delegation.
Despite the sudden buzz, any such push faces daunting political and financial hurdles. Even if the plan won final approval today, construction alone is expected to take a decade or so, plus a few years of preliminary work.
"It is not optimal that it would take that long," said Scott Kirkpatrick, executive director of a Baton Rouge area group pushing transportation improvements called CRISIS. "But at the end of the day, we have to start somewhere."
The whole idea starts with this: building a bridge south of the "new" Mississippi River bridge cannot be financed with state dollars alone, like from raising the gas tax 10 cents or 20 cents per gallon.
Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said any such undertaking likely would be a three-prong effort.
Boosting state aid for roads and bridges is part of it, and debates on gas tax hikes and other steps are expected in 2017.
A state task force on how to repair Louisiana's transportation problems is hearing citizen s…
The governor's task force, which includes Wilson as co-chairman, is set to make recommendations in December. Tolls likely would have to be another source of the financing, and a study on that issue would precede any project launch. Finally, a public/private partnership is considered essential to coming up with the roughly $1 billion-plus needed for a new bridge.
Under that method, a private firm agrees to help pay for construction in exchange for a future revenue stream, such as through toll dollars.
A new state law allows DOTD officials to seek private partners for such a project, rather than waiting and hoping firms step up.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, praised Wilson's work as DOTD secretary.
He also noted that building a new bridge is immensely complicated, including input from the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers. But Graves said a decade or more is too long for such a pressing problem.
"I think what you have to do in this situation is you develop a project development and delivery process that complies with the urgency of the situation that we are facing," he said.
"When you look at just the traffic growth over the next 10 years (and) think problems are bad now, just wait," Graves said. "I don't think we have that kind of time."
Backers say the need for a new bridge is painfully obvious.
Even visitors to Baton Rouge talk about timing trips to avoid morning and evening rush-hour traffic, especially around the bridge.
Last Thursday, an early-morning truck accident on the bridge disrupted traffic for hours on interstates 10 and 12 and key arteries, including Airline Highway, Jefferson and Florida.
State Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Brusly, said some motorists on the west side of river routinely leave at 6 a.m. to get to Baton Rouge by 7:30 a.m.
"You know, we still have to fight through an hour to get to the bad traffic in Baton Rouge," Jordan said. "So we have a little extra hurdle."
About 100,000 motorists use the bridge daily.
However, the push for traffic relief in Baton Rouge is complicated by the fact that other parts of the state face daunting road and bridge problems, too.
The state has a $13.1 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.
The state's $13 billion backlog of needed road and bridge work is mostly for highway work, h…
In addition, another $16 billion would be needed to build a wide range of "mega" projects, including a new bridge in Baton Rouge. "Given the resources that I have now, I am limited in what I have to spend," Wilson said.
Any chance that the bridge could become reality assumes the Legislature will approve tax hikes and other steps to generate more revenue — perhaps $600 million a year or so.
Under one scenario, a transportation tax hike approved by lawmakers could be submitted to voters, which would be an iffy proposition.
The other route is a tax hike that has to clear high hurdles in the House and Senate — two-thirds majorities — at the same time other tax increases are possible because of state budget problems.
Wilson said he would favor that option.
If approved, some of the new revenue could be designated for "capacity" projects, which would allow Wilson and others to try to cobble together a financing plan to build the bridge.
"Obviously, there are lots of hurdles, but for god's sake, I hope something happens," Carter said.
If a new bridge is financially doable, five locations are possible between the existing Horace Wilkinson Bridge — called the "new" bridge — and Donaldsonville.
All five have been endorsed by the Coast Guard.
Traffic on I-10 would be trimmed roughly the same at each location, Wilson said.