BATON ROUGE — A bill creating the Calcasieu Parish Tolling Authority that would work with the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) to try and build a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River at Lake Charles cleared the House Transportation Committee here Tuesday without objection.
The legislation moves to the full House for debate.
Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, is sponsor of House Bill 561. The goal of the legislation is to authorize the tolling authority to pursue public-private partnerships or other authorized methods to fund a six-lane bridge located next to the existing I-10 bridge. The bridge would have shoulders and a pedestrian walkway.
The tolling authority would have seven members — one each selected by the Calcasieu Parish and Jeff Davis police juries, the governing authorities of Lake Charles, Sulphur and Westlake and two by members selected by the Southwest Louisiana legislative delegation.
The bill was amended to add the Calcasieu Parish member and to delete all references to eminent domain, which is the right of the government to expropriate private property for public use.
The Chamber/Southwest Louisiana created a task force that came up with a proposal to use a private-public partnership (P3) to construct the bridge. P3s have been used on other state transportation projects.
Debate on the legislation made it clear the new bridge concept still has a long way to go before it can be approved. DOTD would make an effort to get federal funding, which would help reduce the cost of the tolls.
Abraham said it is impossible to determine at this time what the tolls might be. The cost of the bridge would be a factor as well as how much federal financing might be obtained. Revenues from the tolls would repay the private company or companies that help finance the bridge.
Joshua Hollins, executive counsel for DOTD, said one of the other state toll projects is the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission that is commonly referred to as the Causeway Commission. It operates the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway.
The Belle Chasse Tunnel and Bridge is being replaced with the state’s first publicprivate partnership arrangement. The cost is estimated to be $122 million and the project has secured a $45 million federal grant to replace the aging bridge-and-tunnel span over the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway on Louisiana 23 in Plaquemines Parish. Tolls will pay for $39 million of the cost.
Hollins said DOTD understands the frustration in Calcasieu Parish and has held meetings with the chamber’s task force. More meetings will be held, he said.
“We hope to come here (the Legislature) next year to start this project,” Hollins said.
DOTD has to be involved, he said, because of environmental concerns and federal requirements.
He said the state has learned a lot from the Belle Chasse experience.
Louisiana 1 has a tolling authority, Hollins said, but the Louisiana Transportation Authority (LTA) controls that, along with DOTD.
Abraham said the Calcasieu Tolling Authority would cooperate on the new bridge effort.
Tolls would be reduced once the private-partnership is repaid in order to provide funds for bridge maintenance. Hollins said the bridge has to be in good shape when given back to DOTD.
“This is new ground we are shaping here,” Abraham said.
Although the toll cost is unknown at the present time, Abraham said in his mind anything greater than $2.50 would cause problems. “If tolls are too high, we can’t do it.”
Hollins said there are some problems when tolling federal highways.
They can only be used for new highways, new lanes on an existing highway or reconstruction of highways, bridges and tunnels.
Abraham said once a new bridge is built, the old bridge will be torn down.
Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said his area has the same traffic problems as Calcasieu Parish. Baton Rouge also needs a new I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River.
“We have to continue to think out of the box and be creative,” Carter said. “Nothing has been done in 30 years.”
Hollins said toll studies have been done and they are feasible for P3 projects. He said traffic count is an important factor and the existing I-10 bridge at Lake Charles has 80,000 or more vehicles crossing it on some days.