Jim Beam column: Old bridge repairs not answer

Published 11:02 am Saturday, September 2, 2023

Opposition to plans for a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River here is extremely puzzling when you consider how long we have waited for a better bridge. The thought of simply resurfacing and making other changes to the existing bridge makes no sense whatsoever.

Texas has some of the best bridges and highways in the country and local folks are always asking why Louisiana doesn’t. It’s primarily because the state has waited too long to build a new bridge and the cost kept growing.

The state has managed to come up with some $800 million but the bridge is estimated to cost $2.1 billion. So when you don’t have the money, you look for other ways to do it.

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The Texas A&M Transportation Institute reported that states, regional planning authorities, and municipalities are increasingly considering P3s (private-public partnerships) as a possible solution for delivering transportation projects. It said 33 states and the District of Columbia have used a P3 process to help finance, procure, and construct transportation projects.

The institute said, “For the past decade, Texas has used P3s to deliver highway improvements. The state has created an enabling legislative framework and pioneered P3, even serving as a model for other states in some cases.”

Texas has used a comprehensive development agreement (CDA) for most of its projects, which is one of five P3s. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) announced on Jan. 4, 2021, its intent to enter into a CDA with a developer that had the capability to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the I-10 Calcasieu River Bridge Public-Private Partnership project.

DOTD on its current website said the current bridge that was opened to traffic in 1952 exceeded the existing capacity of 70,876 vehicles per day in 2021. At that time, DOTD also mentioned another bone of contention for its bridge plan.

Some opponents have asked, “Why does the bridge construction have to extend from the I-10/I-210 east interchange to the I-10/I-210 west interchange.”

Obviously, it’s an engineering decision that has something to do with traffic control. So as long as they are building a new bridge, why not do a first-class job?

Anyone who wants more detail on the bridge plans can find it on DOTD’s website at www.dotd.la.gov. There is plenty of information there.

If DOTD starts this project over, which, hopefully, won’t happen, what about the many details that have already been worked out and the money that has already been spent?

Calcasieu Bridge Partners got the job. Only two P-3 bids were received and the company that was not selected was paid $2.75 million for the work it had already done, which is considered normal operating procedure.

Since late 2019, DOTD has spent $37 million on consultants, technical documents, legal and financial services, environmental services, surveys, and geotechnical work involving railroads and utilities.

Eric Kalivoda, DOTD secretary, said each of the two bidders spent roughly $10 million of their own time and money on necessary planning activities.

When area legislators suggested killing this project and starting over, Kalivoda said it was a bad idea. He said if the Joint Legislative Transportation Committee doesn’t advance the current plan this month, the bridge would be deferred indefinitely,

No PPP would want to do business here,  ever, he said.

The truck tolls are the major hang-up but there are ways to bring them down.

Shawn Wilson, the former secretary of DOTD who is running for governor, said during a meeting with the American Press editorial board this week that this project will get $40 million or more annually from vehicle sales taxes. Those funds can be used to bring the tolls down each year, he said.

Work on a new bridge here has been going on for more years than we can count. Environmental problems were the major reason planning has dragged on so long.

Now, it’s tolls. Autos with tags would be paying only 25 cents. Vehicles with tags don’t even have to slow down on most toll roads and bridges.

Texas has 600 miles of toll roads and it also has toll bridges. It also funds its road and bridge construction from more than one source. That is why it has some of the best roads and bridges in the country, and it builds them fast.

We can’t expect truckers to pay more than their fair share of tolls. So getting those down to a reasonable amount should be DOTD’s highest priority. If this plan is approved, a new bridge is still seven years away, and the longer we wait, the more it will cost.