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Panel narrows down Baton Rouge bridge sites to 10; hopes to secure $500M 'down payment'

The Interstate 10 Horace Wilkinson Bridge is congested with traffic crossing the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge on Monday, Sept. 29, 2021.
Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator
The Interstate 10 Horace Wilkinson Bridge is congested with traffic crossing the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge on Monday, Sept. 29, 2021.

A state panel has narrowed the list of possible locations for a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge down to ten spots, hoping to appeal to state lawmakers as they consider Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposal to put a $500 million “down payment” on the project.

Members of the Capital Area Road and Bridge District said they were eager to bring that list down to three possible sites before the end of this year’s legislative session June 6. They hope to convince skeptical state lawmakers to make an initial investment in the long-awaited project.

“We have a lot of money at stake,” Riley Berthelot Jr., West Baton Rouge Parish President and commission member, said. “If we don’t have anything by then, I think we’re going to have a hard time pulling this off.”

Through a combination of previous years’ surpluses, higher than expected tax collections and leftover federal pandemic aid, Louisiana lawmakers entered this year’s budget negotiations with roughly $2.8 billion in one-time funds that will be steered to one-time expenses, like long-neglected infrastructure projects.

Edwards has argued that the state’s windfall is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and the best chance the state may have to jumpstart the project.

But state lawmakers say that’s part of the problem. Edwards’ proposed allocation wouldn’t cover even half of the final cost of the project, and without a long-term funding plan available, legislators worry that the money could be locked away in a state account for more than a decade.

State officials have not determined how much the project would cost, but early estimates are between $1.29 billion and $1.9 billion, depending on where and when the bridge is built.

“When you haven’t proceeded with your federal environmental impact study, and you haven’t picked a corridor yet, or route, you haven’t started to do any acquisition, it’s hard to park a half a billion dollars of excess money in a fund that could sit there for 15 to 20 years before it gets spent,” Sen. President Page Cortez said during a panel discussion with other legislative leaders earlier this month.

Officials of the panel say that money would not be “parked” but rather used to cover the cost of those studies and land acquisition for the project.

Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, said the $500 million would show the state’s seriousness about the project and serve as a “carrot” to attract discretionary grants from the federal government and private sector investment.

Fred Raiford, transportation director for East Baton Rouge Parish, said he hoped the legislature understood the importance of having the money in place to address long-standing traffic projects for the whole region.

“We need funds to move the project forward,” Raiford said. “This bridge won’t happen overnight, but one thing for sure is that what we’ve got out there is not working, and it hasn’t worked in a long time.”

Division over the bridge project has broken down on geographic, rather than political lines.

Daily backups on and around the Horace Wilkinson Bridge — completed in 1968 — are a fact of life for Baton Rouge area residents. And the I-10 corridor through Baton Rouge is notorious for having some of the worst congestion along the nearly 2,500-mile interstate.

Supporters of the new bridge said relieving congestion with a new bridge would save commuters countless hours and boost industrial development along the new bridge corridor.

State lawmakers from the Capital Area belonging to both parties have given their support to the initiative, while most lawmakers outside of the greater Baton Rouge area are opposed.

Most notably, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales) broke with other legislative leaders to voice his “full support” for the project and the “much-needed” $500 million dedication.

“Anyone who has driven through Baton Rouge knows the Mississippi River Bridge is a huge problem,” Schexnayder said in a statement.

But Schexnayder is one of just a handful of state legislative leaders who supports the project.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee (R-Houma), said Edwards’ push for the $500 million “down payment” on the Baton Rouge area bridge had more to do with messaging on an issue that’s popular with voters than an actual plan.

“It’s not that we’re against the spending, but we’d like to see a more detailed plan articulated by the administration on how we’re going to make that bridge a reality, so we’re not just putting $500 (million) on the sidelines,” Magee said.

Rep. Sam Jenkins (D-Shreveport), leader of the House Democratic Caucus, has broken with the de facto leader of the state’s Democratic Party and said he had “concerns” about Edwards’ proposal.

All of the proposed projects would link traffic between La. Highway 30 on the east side of the river with La. Highway 1 on the west. Both highways and their I-10 interchanges would have to undergo significant capacity improvements to make the bridge project viable.

Members of the Capital Area Road and Bridge District were eager to further winnow the list down to three potential sites, but project planners said they had to give area residents an opportunity to comment on the current list in a series of public meetings. After that would come a two-year environmental impact study.

Kara Moree is a project manager for Atlas Technical Consultants, the firm that received $5 million from the state to conduct a preliminary study of the bridge project. Moree told panel members that while the public may be frustrated by the years-long study, the slow pace is by design.

Public input and environmental studies are required for the state to receive the federal funding the future of the project hinges on.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.