The Edwards administration today unveiled a $600 million package of major interstate improvement projects, including a $350 million widening of Interstate 10 through Baton Rouge from the base of the Mississippi River Bridge to the I-10/12 split.
At a press conference at the new Water Campus packed with city and business leaders as well as elected officials from around the state, Edwards and Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson explained that money for the projects, which promise to address some of the state’s most pressing infrastructure needs, would come from federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle Bonds.
GARVEE bonds allow the state to repay the debt with federal highway funds the state receives each year. The debt, amounting to between $60 million and $70 million for the state, will be paid over 12 years.
“All we’re doing with this is borrowing money from the federal government and leveraging it and bringing it forward,” Wilson said. “It’s not creating new revenue. It’s a reallocation of priorities.”
Local governments in the impacted areas, including East Baton Rouge Parish, will also be expected to pony up to help pay for the projects. Baton Rouge’s share will be about $12 million a year—money Mayor Sharon Weston Broome says will come from road transfer funds it receives from the state in connection with a “road swap.”
The parish recently took control of certain state-owned roads within its boundaries and is compensated for it by DOTD.
The ambitious program of long-awaited projects, which also includes a new Interchange on I-10 near the airport in New Orleans and new access from I-20 into the Barksdale Air Force base in Bossier City, appears to enjoy bipartisan support, at least so far. Many of the state lawmakers at today’s press conference were Republicans who have been at odds with Edwards on other issues.
“You had a lot of support from a lot of lawmakers today,” says state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who unsuccessfully tried last year to pass a gasoline tax in the Legislature to help fund mega highway projects. “But the devil is always in the details.”
Some of the details are still unknown. Wilson says it’s too soon to give a timeline for when construction on the I-10 widening could begin, much less be completed. But he says it will take “several years,” not in the least because the state will want to keep two lanes of the interstate in operation during the construction process.
“That is going to slow us down some,” he says.
Also unclear is how opposition from some merchants in the Perkins Road Overpass neighborhood could affect the Baton Rouge project. Previous discussions about widening the interstate have generated heated controversy among property and business owners in that area.
Wilson said today the state already owns 85% of the right-of-way it needs to widen I-10 through that neighborhood, and believes some structures under the interstate could remain, provided certain protections and mitigations are put in place.
“It would be unfortunate for us to continue this gridlock because of one small issue or one area,” he says. “It is important we look at this as a regional and national impact project.”
While today’s announcement signals hope for the chronic interstate gridlock that plagues Baton Rouge, noticeably absent from the list of projects was construction of a new Mississippi River Bridge. Traffic on the bridge backs up regularly and is, arguably, as big a contributor to the community’s traffic woes as is the overutilized stretch of I-10 from the bridge to the split.
Wilson said a new bridge, projected to cost at least $1 billion, is still at the top of the wishlist.
“But realistically we need additional dollars to do that,” he said. “Make no mistake: this is only addressing the tip of the iceberg of our needs.”