Top 10 Stories of 2021: Biden visits LC

Published 1:22 pm Saturday, January 1, 2022

Rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure — including the aging Interstate 10-Calcasieu River bridge — was the focus of President Joe Biden’s message during a visit to Lake Charles May 6.

Biden’s speech at the lakefront was part of his “Getting America Back on Track” tour. With the I-10 bridge in the background, he touted the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan as a “blue collar blueprint to rebuild America.” That effort later became the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and was approved by Congress earlier this year and signed into law by Biden in November.

It was Biden’s first appearance in Lake Charles as president. He last visited the city in 2010 while vice president. As a U.S. senator, he surveyed damage from Hurricane Rita in 2006.

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Biden said it makes no sense to have waited so long for the I-10 bridge to be replaced. The bridge was opened to traffic nearly 70 years ago. While state transportation officials say the bridge is structurally sound, its design is outdated, and it lacks shoulders and lights.

Biden said the bridge is “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 take so long to fix a bridge this important,” he said.

Calcasieu Parish Police Jury President Brian Abshire said Biden assured him during his visit that a new I-10 bridge will be built. During a 2019 visit to Hackberry, former President Donald Trump promised a new I-10 bridge, if re-elected.

During the recent Legis-Gator luncheon in Lake Charles Dec. 15, Shawn Wilson, state Department of Transportation and Development secretary, said a new I-10 bridge project could break ground before 2024. The entire effort could take four to five years to build out.

Securing funding for the bridge continues to be the main obstacle, Wilson said. Last year, Gov. John Bel Edwards allocated more than $80 million in state capital outlay dollars for the project. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could offer additional funding opportunities, he said.

At the time of Biden’s visit, Southwest Louisiana was reaching the nine-month mark since Hurricane Laura’s landfall. Local officials had grown weary of repeatedly asking for approval of a federal disaster package to aid in long-term recovery.

Congress eventually approved a $28.6 billion disaster relief package in October, with $1.6 billion in Community Development Block Grant assistance set aside for all 2020 disasters. Southwest Louisiana received nearly $600 million for Hurricanes Laura and Delta. Several local elected leaders said the amount falls far short of meeting the lingering post-hurricane needs. Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter called the amount “crumbs” when comparing the funding set aside for previous hurricanes.

The federal supplemental relief package does not take into account the February freeze that left area homes and businesses with burst pipes. It also doesn’t account for the severe damage caused by the historic rainfall amount that caused widespread flash flooding in the Lake Charles area May 17. Biden called Hunter days after the flood to find out what help was needed. Hunter mentioned the ongoing need for federal assistance.

Biden’s visit was the fourth trip to Southwest Louisiana by a sitting U.S. president in nearly four years. Trump visited Lake Charles in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey, made a stop in Hackberry in 2019, and surveyed damage after Hurricane Laura’s August 2020 landfall.