LAKE CHARLES — It’s unusually steep and has no shoulders. Decorative cast-iron pistols line its guardrails. If you Google “scariest bridge in Louisiana,” it’s the first result.
The Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River here is a throwback to another era, but still relied upon by around 90,000 vehicles per day at a key section of the cross-country highway. Two visiting presidents have recently spoken of the need to replace it, and after years of campaigning by the region, the project may be inching within reach.
A combination of state and federal money, potentially including some from the recently passed infrastructure bill – as well as planned tolls – could see the hulking and outdated structure removed in favor of a sleek and modern one, possibly with a pedestrian walkway.
“At any given day or any given time, the bridge could be shut down because of an accident or a stalled vehicle,” said Gary Gobert, 61, owner of Lake Charles-based Lake City Trucking, which operates 50 trucks that cross the bridge regularly. “And just the thought of it being as old a bridge as it is, I think about it on a daily basis. Like that bridge that collapsed in Minnesota. It’s like we’re just waiting for it to collapse.”
While a final green light on construction remains months away – at best – local and state officials say enough pieces are falling into place to give them real hope. President Joe Biden used the bridge’s arched truss as a backdrop for his speech when he visited in May, making it a poster child for the nation’s aging infrastructure.
It has now outlived its intended lifespan by two decades, and the number of vehicles crossing daily is more than double what it was designed for. Jokes about fears of crossing it can be found easily on social media.
State officials promise that the bridge is in fact safe and say it would be closed if it weren’t – though the cost of maintaining it is high because of its age and design.
“It’s probably the oldest structure on Interstate 10 as we know it today. It was built before the Interstate system,” said state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson.
Asked whether he believed the project could finally move forward, he said: “It is my hope to make it happen. I believe the stars are aligned to make it happen.”
“But we have to make the right decisions in the process, both in terms of the technical aspects of what we do as well as the public,” Wilson added, referring to discussions about a toll for the new bridge, something he says will almost surely be necessary.
Wilson noted Biden’s aim to address the country’s 10 most economically important bridges. “I believe this is one of those bridges,” Wilson said, given its importance to the I-10 and its location along a key industrial corridor.
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Keith DuRousseau, who chairs a local task force campaigning to replace the bridge, said the opportunity is now.
“If it doesn’t get done now, it won’t happen in my generation,” said DuRousseau, also head of Keiland Construction in Lake Charles.
Under the gun
Anyone who’s made the drive from south Louisiana to Houston will surely remember the bridge. As drivers hit northern Lake Charles on the I-10 heading west, it comes into view resembling a rusty, narrow ramp.
If you are brave enough to look to the sides while crossing, you’ll see sets of crossed pistols along the guardrails. Local historian Adley Cormier has said the pistols were intended as a nod to Jean Lafitte and Louisiana’s privateer past.
The bridge, which connects Lake Charles to Westlake and the industrial plants that dominate the area, was originally part of U.S. 90 when it opened in 1952. It was later integrated into the Interstate system.
It was designed for a 50-year lifespan and a capacity of 37,000 vehicles per day. That number has now reached about 90,000 per day. The bridge also has no shoulders, no lights and a steep incline.
A Conoco chemical spill in 1994 has further complicated constructing a new bridge, since there were concerns that drilling could lead to aquifer contamination, but DuRousseau says new techniques have been developed. State legislation has been passed guaranteeing proceeds from a lawsuit related to the spill go toward the bridge project.
The project would not only be for a new bridge. It would stretch nine miles in total between the I-210 loop around Lake Charles on either side of the Calcasieu River to include widening and modernization, though it would likely be carried out in phases, allowing segments to go forward independently.
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The total cost of the project has been estimated at around $1.4 billion, including roughly $860 million for the portion including the bridge, Wilson said. But those figures could turn out to be higher due to the increase in prices seen recently, he warned.
So far, only about $162 million has been set aside for the project, Wilson said, though that does not include other expected state and federal aid. The amount includes around $82 million in state bond money, $50 million from the federal American Rescue Plan economic stimulus passed earlier this year and $30 million in COVID response dollars.
DuRousseau says there have been indications that the bridge project could receive around $30 million from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill, though Wilson said he could not provide figures on that. There are different categories within the infrastructure law that the bridge could qualify for.
‘Makes no sense’
State and local officials are hoping to line up as many dollars as possible in order to reduce tolls. DuRousseau says he is hoping tolls could be eliminated altogether, though Wilson cautions that such a plan doesn’t seem feasible. The plan is to enter a private-public partnership for the project.
An environmental impact study is ongoing and Wilson said the current schedule would see a contract in place to design and construct the portion of the project that includes the bridge before the end of 2023.
DuRousseau said the task force was estimating construction time of about three years, but Wilson said that will depend on the proposals received. The task force envisions the old bridge being demolished.
The task force’s preferred replacement includes six lanes with a sleek, cable-stayed design that stretches like violin strings down to the bridge span. A section for pedestrians and cyclists would also be included. Both state and local officials want to somehow incorporate the old pistols in the new bridge as well.
It all sounds tantalizing, but local residents are used to hearing promises related to the bridge.
When then-President Donald Trump visited the region in May 2019, after butchering the pronunciation of Calcasieu, he said: “If we win this election, which is just 16 months away, we’re giving you a brand new I-10 bridge.”
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Not to be outdone, Biden visited Lake Charles in May and spoke from the city’s waterfront, the bridge behind him. He called it “a perfect example of how we’ve neglected as a nation to invest in the future of our economy and the future of our people.”
“It shouldn’t be this hard or take so long to fix a bridge that’s this important. It makes no sense,” he said.
Residents of southwest Louisiana would readily agree. Gobert, whose company has existed since 1988, is more than ready to see the old bridge disappear.
“Growing up in this area and driving it everyday, you get accustomed,” he said of driving large trucks over the bridge. “But it is pretty narrow. You can see people when they’re passing by that they’re scared to death to pass you up on the bridge.”