Louisiana’s Sunshine Bridge Could Open Sooner Than January Target Date

Sunshine Bridge repair
The Sunshine Bridge in Louisiana undergoes repair after a crane barge collided with it in October. The accident placed the bridge out of service. (Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development)

Despite high-profile projects in Baton Rouge and elsewhere, Louisiana’s $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs will rise next year because the state lacks the needed resources, state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson said Nov. 15.

“We don’t have the money to invest in building projects because we are spending all the money to preserve what we have,” Wilson said. “We aren’t investing in our future.”

Wilson also said the Sunshine Bridge will reopen in January and possibly sooner.

Asked later if a December reopening is possible, he said, “I can’t say that because there is a lot that has to happen.”

Wilson made his comments during the annual meeting of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Louisiana.

His views mirrored those he made a year ago, nearly to the day, after a bid by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to increase the state gas tax by 17 cents per gallon and raise another $500 million per year died in the Legislature.

No such push is expected again until at least 2021 because of legislative rules and political concerns, including 2019 being an election year.

The state is launching a $350 million plan to widen Interstate 10 from the “new” Mississippi River bridge to or near the I-10/12 split in Baton Rouge.

However, that work will be financed with federal bonds as will a second project to upgrade I-10 near Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

Wilson said the state Department of Transportation and Development plans to spend $937 million next year, including $788 million on road and bridge preservation.

Even with that, he said, today’s $14 billion backlog is expected to grow by several hundred million dollars.

“We are not spending enough to stop the deterioration,” he said.

The backlog rose last year even though the state spent $1.2 billion for transportation.

Motorists spend 38.4 cents per gallon, including 20 cents in state taxes.

Wilson said 33 states have boosted transportation spending since 2012.

The last change here was in 1990.

“Our roads are in poor condition,” he told the group.

Wilson said 8.6% of state roads are labeled deficient — 12th highest in the nation — and 14% of bridges carry that label — 14th highest.

“Those are upside-down statistics if you ask me,” he said.

Wilson also said the state will have problems coming up with enough dollars in 2019 to qualify for federal matching money.

The 54-year-old Sunshine Bridge has been out of service since Oct. 12, when it was damaged by a crane barge.

The closure has sparked huge problems for families and businesses who rely on the structure, which typically handles about 25,000 cars and trucks daily.

Wilson’s comment that the bridge will reopen in January or sooner sparked attention. But he said after his address that it is too soon to raise hopes of an earlier opening.

“January is what we have put as our completion date. That is based on the work that we have and is based on weather and all those other things that might factor into what we have.”

“As soon as we can reopen it, we will,” Wilson said. “We aren’t going to wait and say there is a strategic opening on Jan. 3.”

He added, “There is no firm date other than January that we are communicating to the public because I don’t want folks to build anticipation and have high winds that slow everything down or have steel that doesn’t pass muster or something happens on the water that causes an issue.”

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