New bridges still long way off

NEW BRIDGE RINDERING — A task force appointed by the Chamber/Southwest Louisiana has released this rendering of a proposed new Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River at Lake Charles.

Motorists in the Lake Charles and Baton Rouge areas and others who travel the Interstate 10 corridor have to be awfully disappointed each time they hear news about desperately needed new bridges at both cities. Unless something changes, both areas appear to be at least four years away from even starting construction.

The environmental impact study (EIS) for a new Lake Charles bridge has been ongoing since the early 2000s. However, officials with HNTB Corp., a firm hired by the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) to oversee the EIS process, said a new bridge here could break ground no sooner than 2024.

Baton Rouge motorists got the same bad news Monday. State officials said starting construction of a new bridge there, even if financing plans were in place, is at least four years away. The Advocate reported that narrowing the list of possible sites to three locations will take about 24 months, and environmental reviews will take another 24 months.

Shawn Wilson, secretary of DOTD, said doing the preliminary work now makes sense because it has to be done for a new Baton Rouge bridge to become a reality. J.H. Campbell, chairman of the Capital Area Road and Bridge District, said citizens ask him why the state cannot simply find a site, finish the environmental work “and rock and roll.”

Jim Rock, a member of the local bridge task force appointed by the Chamber/Southwest Louisiana, would agree. Rock said earlier that 24 months is obviously too long. A local site has already been selected and the task force and most motorists think bridge work can be done much earlier.

Financing new bridges is a major hurdle for both Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. Wilson and others have said innovative financing methods will be needed, which include tolls, public/private partnerships, state dollars and one-time money.

George Swift, president and CEO of the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, last month explained why state financing is difficult. Swift said most Republicans say cut the budget and reallocate the funds.

That seems unlikely, Swift said, because 80 percent of the state’s general fund is dedicated to specific items like education and law enforcement. He said an increase in the state’s gasoline tax is also considered a long shot.

Complicating the local bridge financing situation is a promise President Trump made to build a new Lake Charles-I-10 bridge if he is re-elected later this year. Gov. John Bel Edwards has promised to add $85 million to the state’s capital outlay bill as the state’s 10-percent share if the federal government comes up with its 90-percent share.

Trump is also touting a new policy called “One Federal Decision.” It would allow one environmental review per project. The federal government would also use documents put together at the state and local levels to eliminate duplication.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, thinks Trump is on the right track and spoke for all Lake Charles and Baton Rouge area motorists when he said the current environmental process is “paralysis by analysis.”

Much has changed, of course, since Trump promised a new bridge here. The president has been impeached and he’s on trial in the U.S. Senate. If he survives that trial, as expected, he still faces a tough fight for re-election.

Area legislators were doing a good job of trying to put procedures in place to fund a new bridge here. Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, got a law enacted that created the Calcasieu Parish Bridge Fund. Any money recovered from a suit filed by DOTD seeking payment for contamination within two miles of the bridge would go into that fund.

State Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, tried to set up a toll authority in the event one was needed. Unfortunately, tolls are as unpopular as taxes, and once Trump made his bridge promise, that effort was pulled.

Abraham said Trump’s promise revived the possibility of receiving federal funds and that is why the entire Southwest Louisiana legislative delegation decided to go instead with a Senate concurrent resolution. The resolution directs DOTD to expedite the procurement, planning, engineering, design and construction of a new I-10 bridge at Lake Charles in cooperation with the chamber’s task force.

How much of that work has been done is unknown at this time. However, the chamber bridge task force has done a commendable job since its creation. The task force unveiled its plan for a new I-10 bridge last Jan. 25.

It envisioned the bridge would be built within a three-year timeline with estimated costs ranging from $400 million to $600 million. Wilson said at the time he didn’t disagree with the plan, but did disagree with relying exclusively on private funding and the aggressive timeline to start construction in 2020.

Here we are a year later and the prospects for a new bridge are dimmer than ever.

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