Louisiana Transportation Chief Expects Key Road Projects Will Be Slowed

Louisiana Seeks Infusion of Funds to Boost Infrastructure
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The failure of efforts to boost state aid for roads and bridges means key projects statewide will be slowed, Louisiana’s transportation chief said July 7.

“My struggle is without funds we probably don’t need to be advancing all these projects to the next stage,” said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The list includes preliminary work on a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge; upgrading the Loyola Drive interchange near Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport; and widening Interstate 10 between Williams Boulevard and Veterans Highway in Jefferson Parish.

Wilson said more than half a dozen major projects are pending in the New Orleans area, all needing between $40 million and $100 million each to finish.

“And that is just in New Orleans,” he said. “That doesn’t include what is happening in Baton Rouge, what is happening in Lafayette.”

Wilson also said that, without injection of new dollars on the horizon, highway and bridge preservation will be the priority.

A push to increase state aid for roads and bridges by about $500 million per year by boosting the state gas tax 17 cents per gallon died during the regular legislative session, which ended June 8.

Critics said that, despite complaints from motorists in Baton Rouge and elsewhere, voters were unwilling to pay higher taxes in hopes of easing daily backups.

The lack of any action leaves standing Louisiana’s $13 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, and a separate list of “mega” projects, including a new bridge in Baton Rouge.

Wilson said an environmental study for a new bridge is underway. But he said the review will get to a point where a funding commitment is needed to continue the planning.

Wilson said federal officials eventually will be unwilling to continue preliminary work if the project is going to sit on a shelf.

“We expect to have something in late ’18, early ’19, but before we finish that we have to have a plan on how to finance the project,” he said.

A new bridge would cost at least $1 billion.

Other New Orleans-area projects with funding questions include a new interchange at the Lake Pontchartrian Causeway and Earhart Expressway; replacement of the Almonaster Avenue Bridge and replacement of the Belle Chase Tunnel.

Wilson said in February that, without new aid, the state could see its first loss of federal aid for roads and bridges. Louisiana typically gets between $650 million and $700 million per year. Wilson said then that the state, as early as next year, could lose $150 million in federal aid in the first year and $300 million in the second.

Also, state officials this week closed Louisiana’s 28th rural bridge this year because of deteriorating conditions.

A June report by national transportation group TRIP said Louisiana has the ninth most structurally deficient bridges in the nation.

One project that is on schedule will widen Interstate 10 from Highland Road in Baton Rouge to La. Highway 73 in suburban Ascension Parish, a 7-mile stretch. Wilson said the contract is set to be signed Aug. 10, with work beginning near the end of the year.

After the contract is signed Wilson said motorists may notice preliminary work, including installation of barriers.

The I-10 widening will expand the corridor from four lanes to six and take up to 2½ years to finish.