At one time or another, many drivers in Louisiana has been stuck at the Interstate 10 bottleneck in downtown Baton Rouge — and that's not counting the millions of others who drive there from elsewhere, and find that the coast-to-coast freeway narrows to one lane.
Now, work has finally begun to fix the problem.
The state's $8.8 million plan will create a new Terrace Avenue exit off Interstate 110 South, greatly reducing the daily traffic tie-ups created by motorists crossing multiple lanes at the foot of the Mississippi River bridge.
"This is a game-changer," U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican, said about the addressing a headache on the interstate highway that was called to the attention of leading members of Congress and even then-President Barack Obama during one of his visits to the city.
The project coincides with a separate widening of the Baton Rouge interstate pushed by the state Department of Transportation and Development. Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state will borrow against future federal highway money to pay for enlarging the highway through the capital city as a way to further reduce congestion.
That innovative borrowing system, via GARVEE bonds to use the technical term, will also fund two other major interstate projects: a new exit for Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, and the new exit on Interstate 10 needed for the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner.
"This is significant in terms of safety but also traffic flow," Edwards said at the groundbreaking for the Terrace Street exit, funded as part of a competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation — but that's also true for those two GARVEE bond projects.
Still, as Edwards and many others have noted, these projects are relatively small potatoes compared to the traffic needs of the state, whether on the interstate highways or on the other roads and bridges.
Edwards said a new bridge is needed across the Mississippi River, south of the current one in downtown Baton Rouge.
How to pay for it remains unclear, especially after a bid to boost Louisiana's gas tax died in the Legislature last year. The state has a nearly $14 billion backlog of road and bridge projects. A Mississippi River bridge would cost at least $1 billion — and that's not counting the expense of other major projects needed around the state, including a new crossing of the Calcasieu River in the booming Lake Charles area, and Interstate 49 south of Lafayette.
The scale of the needs is daunting. But those who worked on the shorter-term urgencies like the I-110 bottleneck are contributing to progress. It's just not fast enough, and the costs of major construction projects will only go up in the decades ahead, as Louisiana refuses to face the financial realities of its infrastructure challenges.