New bridges don't come easily

BRIDGE HAS HISTORY — The Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River at Lake Charles has a long history, and getting it replaced has been difficult.

The construction of a new Interstate 10 bridge in Lake Charles should have started a long time ago. The same thing happened with the current bridge. It was first conceived in 1936, but didn’t officially open until Sept. 18, 1951 — 15 years later.

Gov. Earl K. Long came here to cut the ribbon. The single-span bridge has a vertical clearance of 135 feet. It has two 26-foot expressways with a 4-foot sidewalk between and 3-foot sidewalks on each side. One of its unique features is pistols on the handrails.

In 1936, Lake Charles had a heavy volume of traffic on its older bridge along the Old Spanish Trail on Shell Beach Drive at the southwest end of the lake. It was reported 5,000 cars crossed the bridge every day. The daily traffic count on the Interstate 10 bridge has been as high as 80,000.

The first report on the need for the current bridge came on May 22, 1936, when a banner headline in the American Press said, “State sees need of new bridge here.”

The Louisiana Highway Commission at the time recognized an “imminent need” for a new river bridge at Lake Charles when a Calcasieu Parish citizens committee went to Baton Rouge to explain a plan for a state-built bridge.

Gov. Richard Leche told the committee a new bridge would be “a fine thing.” It was expected a new bridge would cost $12.5 million. However, the final cost was only $10 million, $8 million for the bridge and $2 million for the approaches.

The traffic count over the existing bridge had climbed to 11,400 daily in 1944. It had also been struck by water vessels a number of times and either had to be closed or reduced to one lane.

The American Press in a special bridge section on Oct. 7, 1951, said after 10 years of organizing work for a new bridge by a parish-wide group of the Lake Charles Association of Commerce, local citizens found it hard to believe their eyes when work began on May 24, 1946.

The first contract had been awarded May 3, 1946, to the McWilliams Dredging Co. of New Orleans for nearly $689,000. It was the first of eight major contracts that were to total $9.7 million.

The McWilliams Co. brought the largest dredge boat in the South to do the work. When its work was complete, the dredge struck the south span of the old Calcasieu River Bridge on it way down river. The bridge was disabled, but reopened six days later.

Embankment operations for the new bridge began in 1946 and the steel and concrete sub-structure in 1948. The bridge was approximately 1.3 miles long, and was called the Louisiana Memorial World War II Bridge.

Bids on the superstructure were opened April 6, 1949, but work was held up while the steel structures were fabricated in Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn.

Work started on the west highway approach project on June 26, 1950, and it was one of the last contracts to be completed before the bridge was opened.

State engineers in 1951 had inspected both the old and new bridges and found the old bridge “in such condition that a possible failure may occur at any time” and heavy traffic needed to be taken off the bridge as soon as possible. So the new bridge opened earlier than planned.

U.S. Rep. Henry D. Larcade Jr., who represented this area in Congress, said, “No section of the United States was more in need of this facility to serve the industrial area of Lake Charles and to take care of the traffic on the great trans-continental highway that it will serve.”

The bridge has served this area well since 1951, but early warning signs about the safety of the bridge began as early as 2009 and have continued until this day.

Highway officials have always moved quickly to tell the motoring public the bridge is safe.

William Ankner, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development in 2009, said, “If the bridge were not safe, I would close it immediately, as I have done dozens of times for other bridges across Louisiana.”

Early talk about a new I-10 bridge came as early as Dec. 12, 2010, when state officials were renewing efforts to plan the construction of an estimated $400 million bridge. Under the best-case scenario, it was reported a new bridge could be open for travelers by 2019.

Well, 2019 is almost half over, and a new bridge still appears to be a long way off. However, the Chamber of Commerce — which it did in 1936 — has seized the initiative again by creating a bridge task force that has done a great job.

The rest is up to DOTD, which our legislative delegation has told to consider a public-private partnership and to work with the chamber’s task force to expedite all the steps necessary to build a new Interstate 10 bridge.

Motorists from all over the country who cross this bridge every day and local citizens who need it have waited long enough.

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