Go-ahead given to finance new Interstate 10/Calcasieu River bridge

John Guidroz

A state legislative committee gave approval Wednesday for the state Department of Transportation and Development to pursue a public-private partnership aimed at replacing the aging Interstate 10/Calcasieu River bridge.

Approval by the Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works centered around a project that will extend from the I-10/I-210 West interchange to the Ryan Street exit ramp on the east side of the Calcasieu River. Shawn Wilson, DOTD secretary, said cost estimates range from $600-$800 million.

Wilson acknowledged that not every group is “110 percent” with everything the state is doing on this project. However, they all share the same result.

“We all agree that the time is now to deliver this bridge as best we can,” he said. “Waiting is no longer an option, and the cost is only going to increase.”

The P3 differs from typical state bridge building efforts because the public/private partner developer will design, build, finance, operate and maintain infrastructure within P3 limits over a determined time frame, Wilson said.

“When we build a bridge, we build it, and then the state maintains it from day one,” he said. “The (P3) is a business model basis, as opposed to a standard public service basis that we get with regular infrastructure.”

Wilson said the P3 formula offers the best value and use of transportation assets. He said it’s the most modern way to procure traditional transportation solutions, especially in financially and physically constrained environments.

“We’re not in a position to pay for this with our own resources,” he said. “There’s no way we could deliver this project or any other billion dollar project, quite frankly, with the 16-cent (state gasoline tax) that dates back to the 1990s. You have to attract private  investment.”

 Bridge history

Opened to traffic in 1952, the I-10 bridge is exceeding its daily capacity of 70,876 vehicles, Wilson said. He said the number of crashes at the I-10 corridor suprasses the statewide average by 66 percent.

Investment by the state has kept the bridge’s integrity safe over the years, Wilson said. However, extensive repairs have required lane closures. Wear and tear from years of above-capacity traffic has given the bridge a less than stellar reputation. The bridge also lacks any shoulders and doesn’t meet current bridge design criteria, Wilson said.

“This is the bridge that people are afraid to drive over sometimes,” he said.

 Improvements to the bridge and corridor are necessary to handle projected growth, Wilson said.

“It’s going to be an essential product for this community,” he said.

Timeline

Wilson discussed having a contract awarded by February 2023, with a notice to proceed with work by April of that year.

“I will do my damndest to do that,” he said of keeping the schedule.

Before a proposal can be approved, it must go before the Joint Transportation Committee. A public hearing must be held within 30 days of the committee meeting. The state DOTD then determines whether the proposal serves a public purpose, and approval is subject to the public-private entity entering into a comprehensive agreement.

Wilson said an environmental impact statement is being prepared. A fourth public meeting is scheduled for the spring 2021.

A record of decision is anticipated by 2022. Wilson said that document will open the door to move forward with construction and permits, as well as access any federal dollars.

Steps scheduled for next year include publishing a notice of intent and procurement guidelines by early January, issuing a request for qualifications by March, and announcing a short list of qualified teams by July.

The final request for proposals will be issued in March 2022. They will be due by Aug 30. A local jurisdiction review period will go from December 2022 to February 2023. The project would be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration for concurrence by January 2023.

Wilson said he is unsure how long it will take to build the bridge. He said toll amounts is the most commonly asked question.

“I am not interested in seeing a $6 toll (or) a $5 toll,” he said. “I’m interested in seeing the least amount of money we can get for the shortest amount of time.”

George Swift, Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance president/CEO, said legislators representing Southwest Louisiana and area officials want the lowest toll possible.

“I think we can confidently say this is about the only way we see that it can be done,” he said.

The rest of the work, including Ryan Street to I-210 on the east side, will be phased in by the state DOTD at a later date, he said.

“It is not in the best interests of the public to have such a large corridor under construction at the same time,” he said.

The entire I-10 project has an estimated $1 billion price tag, Wilson said.Opened to traffic in 1952, the I-10 bridge is exceeding its daily capacity of 70,876 vehicles, Shawn Wilson, DOTD secretary, said.

Rick Hickman

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