DENHAM SPRINGS – A Senate bill lawmakers approved in the recent legislative session brings together five parishes to tackle a decades-old problem.
Traffic tie-ups have hampered the quality of life in Livingston, Ascension, East Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes. Five parishes now comprise a coalition formed through a senate bill that puts them together that would ultimately seek funding for a new Mississippi River bridge.
Senate Bill 426, authored by Port Allen Republican state Sen. Rick Ward III, called for creation of a commission comprised of the five parish presidents or their designees. The board will a total of seven members – the remaining two appointed by the Gov. John Bel Edwards and La. Department of Transportation Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson.
Ward said during the session the bill is not intended to create a taxing district, but to formulate a plan and seek as much public-private partnership as possible.
He is confident a private equity firm would buy into the project and bond out 100 percent of the money needed (approximately $1.2 billion. Tolls over an extended period of time would cover pay off the firm, Ward said.
“While there are options for the tax side of the project, our first goal is to try to run as much as we can through a private-public partnership,” he said.
The funds – if generated by a tax – would remain in the five-parish region.
The question of how it will affect Livingston Parish – and if area voters would support the measure – is another story.
“The biggest issue is going to be the priority for all of those parishes,” Wilson said. “They’re going to have to see the impact on communities, so for them to work together and recognize the region’s problems the task, but I think it’s doable.”
A Mississippi River bridge would help alleviate traffic through the parish, but geographical location does not give Livingston a direct benefit from the project – a tough sell for taxpayers, Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said.
The bill would contain perks, including approximately $50 million in funds for highway improvements. Voter approval, however, would be a long shot, he said.
“I don’t think Livingston Parish voters would support this, even though it would help in a “roundabout” kind of way,” Ricks said. “Truckers and plant workers would obviously benefit, especially when you consider how many residents here commute to Ascension, Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes for jobs in the petrochemical industry.”
Ricks said he told his fellow parish presidents last year he had doubts about support for the bill, something his counterparts also suspect about their respective areas.
Regardless of the benefit, he believes Livingston Parish residents already feel “tax weary.”
“It was hard enough for us to renew the health unit millage, and then we have the sheriff’s department tax later this year and the road maintenance tax,” Ricks said. “To make matters even tougher, the bridge issue would be a new tax.”
Wilson believe the DOTD could build the bridge across the Mississippi River for $600 million, but it would take multiple funding streams – an issue the parish presidents would have to resolve, Wilson said.
“Whether you have the river or not, you have to recognize what you provide for your citizens,” he said. “Because Livingston and many parishes in the district are bedroom communities for the Greater Baton Rouge area, we believe access in Livingston will have improved capacity with a new bridge and a widened I-10.
“Even if the bridge doesn’t have a footprint in the geographic jurisdiction of Livingston Parish, it would provide an immediate benefit for the citizens who travel on I-12 on a regular basis for work, pleasure or just passing through,” he said.
State lawmakers Rogers Pope and Valarie Hodges, both from Denham Springs, share the parish president’s skepticism.
Whichever direction voters take, Pope believes the capitol region needs to keep the discussion going.
“It’s a major project, one in which everyone would get something out of it, but I’m somewhat skeptical about it moving forward,” Pope said. “There’s an opportunity for it to move forward through public/private partnerships and possibly some toll roads, but it’s going to be a tough sell with voters.”
Hodges fears the tax could hamper the growth of Livingston Parish.
“Obviously people go across the bridges almost every day, but we’ve already got one of the highest sales taxes in the nation and one of the highest in the state at 9.5 percent,” she said. “We can’t afford more taxes, and more increases would hurt business and industry … the more we tax, the more people leave.”
Funding also concerns Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry.
“Sales tax very sensitive issue to a lot of folks,” he said. “Especially in the City of Denham Springs, we need to be cautious about this, otherwise we will eventually tax ourselves out of business.”
Hodges believes the project would work better in the form of loops rather than a new bridge, particularly if it’s not in Livingston Parish.
“Why pay for something that won’t help us? What we need is a Hooper road extension to get traffic from northern Livingston,” she said. “Look at loops in Texas: They’re way out of the way and much faster – and people willingly pay the toll.”
“If you can go 70 miles per hour without red lights, they’ll use it,” she said. “Build it, and they’ll come.”
Much of the concern from Ricks stems around the funding mechanism. The federal government has traditionally picked up the tab for most of the construction, which leads the parish president to share the belief likely held by most of his constituents.
“I’m not against this bridge, and I think it would be a huge benefit for this parish, but the federal government should pay for this project,” he said. “This shouldn’t fall on the back of the five parishes.”
The state does not have federal funding for a capacity program, while the match at a local level does not generate new federal money, Wilson said.
Whatever revenue generated by the district would not guarantee additional federal money, he said. A typical bridge project would include 80 percent federal funding and 20 percent from the state.
“But I’m not getting 80 percent funding right now, and there’s no line item for this in the current budget,” Wilson said.
The 17-cent per gallon fuel tax which fizzled in the legislature last year would have made a difference, Wilson said.
It could have guaranteed 100 percent state funding, he said.
“It means I could have paid for the bridge and do other segments over time over a 10- or 12-year period with those revenues, but without that, the state doesn’t have a capacity program,” Wilson said. “Without that, it means we have to use our money to maintain what we have already.”
State Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, is not so sure voters would nix the proposal. He believes the hours motorists spend in bottlenecks in the morning and evening rush hours could convince them that a bridge tax is a worthy cause.
“This could get legs and go, largely because people are sick and tired of the traffic problems in the Baton Rouge region,” Erdey said.
A transfer of traffic off Interstate 10 or 12 in the Baton Rouge area could alleviate much of the daily tie-ups, Erdey said.
“What has to be determined is the route, where the bridge has to be located and where it has to connect,” he said. “We still have a lot to work out.”
Erdey’s question on location leads to questions about a provision in the bill that could give the tax issue a run for the money.
Erdey believes the state missed the boat on loops.
A proposal for a loop that would start at Interstate 10 on the north side of La. 415 near Port Allen would have routed traffic parallel to La. 1 southbound. Another plan less than 10 years ago included loops for the Watson-Central area near the Hooper/Wax Road interchange.
“The problem is that it would’ve gone through a lot of neighborhoods, which would’ve led to a lot of displacement of residents, which is why we were not for that proposal,” Erdey said.
It was a different story for the loop on the Westbank, which was discussed before the heavy proliferation of subdivisions popped up in the area south of the Intracoastal Waterway down to Addis.
“I’ve always said we’re 25 years behind in building a loop around Baton Rouge, something that should’ve been done years ago,” Erdey said. “Now, we’re in in a situation in which we’re jam-packed with new development, which has sent costs upward and would now displace people, all the while they could’ve bought raw land in the 1980s and done the project for a much smaller costs.
“Placement is now the biggest challenge,” he said. “The development which started more than 25 years ago has made the notion of a loop a much bigger obstacle.”
West Baton Rouge President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot believes the parish coalition may be the best chance to solve for the Greater Baton Rouge region to remedy the traffic woes.
“I think we’re all going to benefit by this,” he said. “It may not have a footprint in Livingston Parish, but it would clear some of the I-12 traffic in that area, and a lot of the residents in that area commute here for work each day.
“We need to do something,” Berthelot said. “This is way overdue, and this may be our grand opportunity to get the ball rolling.”
The five parish leaders will likely each have their idea on where to build the bridge.
Four bridges cross the Mississippi River in the Greater Baton Rouge area.
The Huey P. Long Bridge – the oldest of the four – connects the east-west artery along U.S. 190 in East Baton Rouge. It served as the only bridge in the immediate Baton Rouge area from its completion in 1940 until the Horace Wilkinson Bridge (more commonly known as the “new Mississippi River Bridge”) opened to motorists in April 1968.
The Sunshine Bridge, which connects St. James Parish to Ascension near Convent, was completed in 1964 and operated as a toll bridge well into the 1980s, which paid the debt on construction.
It was the subject of widespread criticism for Jimmie Davis, who oversaw its construction when he took office in 1960. Critics deemed it “The Bridge to Nowhere” because of the largely undeveloped region between Convent and Donaldsonville, the parish seat in Ascension Parish.
The perception changed significantly over the next decade when the strong presence from the petrochemical industry made it a vital artery for the employees, as well as the transportation of goods to the plants in Ascension and Iberville parishes.
The same cannot be said about the Audubon Bridge, which opened in 2010 as a connector over the Mississippi River between West Feliciana and Pointe Coupee parishes.
Critics have assigned it the distinction previously held by the Sunshine Bridge, while others call it “The Road Much Less Traveled.”
“Thirty years ago, they anticipated more business and more growth in that area, but it hasn’t happened,” Wilson said. “I don’t see how forcing people to drive to the Audubon Bridge, about 30 miles outside the region, would alleviate problems. Had we built a bridge further south, we may have not been having these problems today.”
State lawmakers and parish leaders agree that the placement of the two bridges far from the Capitol City cannot happen again.
The Audubon Bridge serves no purpose for the tie-ups that hammer the five-parish region, said state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, who represents both Livingston and Ascension parishes.
“We definitely need a bridge, but the closer the bridge is to the existing bridge, the better,” he said. “The further away we build the bridge, the more it will cost us to connect highways and interstate traffic to it.”
Schexnayder said he has also considered a connection of La. 63 in Livingston to the Grammercy Bridge near La. 3127, which would relieve a lot of traffic that does not have to go through the Baton Rouge.
Iberville Parish President Mitchell Ourso believes discussion on the location is irrelevant at the onset. All five parishes will need to come up with a plan palatable to voters throughout the region.
“My only goal right now is to see what people would be acceptable to voters, whether it’s a property tax or sales tax,” he said. “We don’t know the guts of the whole project yet, so right now I’m trying to go into this as a team player to determine a mechanism for funding.
“From there, we’ll let the data dictate where this bridge should go,” he said.