La. 1 bridge closure in Port Allen causing major problems for west side business, industry

    A new weight restriction that went into effect March 31 on the La. 1 Intracoastal Waterway Bridge in Port Allen is causing massive headaches for businesses and industries on the west side.

    The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development announced late in the afternoon on March 30 that it would begin restricting bridge traffic to vehicles weighing less than 25 tons the following day due to deficiencies uncovered during a recent routine inspection. The restriction is expected to remain in effect for at least 60 days, while work crews repair the 57-year-old structure.

    While no one is disputing the need for the bridge repairs, the lack of advance notice has been one of the biggest problems for west side businesses, which had no time to plan for the significantly longer travel time bypassing the bridge is causing.

    “We started getting all sorts of calls Friday morning from companies that didn’t know what was going on,” says Jamie Hanks, executive director of the West Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce. “They were asking us why the police were blocking off the road and preventing their trucks from crossing.”

    To get to the south side of the Intracoastal Waterway, trucks exceeding the weight limit are now being directed to cross the Mississippi River at the Sunshine Bridge in Donaldsonville.

    For companies like Dow, the weight restriction is particularly problematic. Some 100 Dow trucks per day carrying liquid and polyethylene typically leave the company’s Port Allen warehouse and use the La. 1 bridge, says Stacey Chiasson in Dow’s public affairs division. Now, those trucks are spending at least an additional hour on the road using alternate routes.

    “This is putting our trucks on already-congested highways for another hour a day,” she says. “When you look at the alternate route, it goes through rural areas. It’s not good. The effects of these restrictions will not be positive.”

    In its press release issued March 30, DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson says he recognizes that the situation is “unfortunate and inconvenient for the commercial trucks, and the industries they serve,” adding the department is working as quickly as possible to get the bridge reopened to heavy trucks.

    In the meantime, Hanks and her counterpart at the Iberville Chamber of Commerce are trying to assess the financial impact of the bridge restriction on west side businesses. They say they have asked their members for data and will be releasing cost estimates as soon as they are available. Some of the losses are immeasurable, though.

    “One of the attractions of West Baton Rouge is the multimodal access,” Hanks says. “This has severely impacted companies’ access to the interstate and the port.”

    The bridge restriction comes as a coalition of more than 20 statewide business groups is mobilizing in support of increasing the current 38.4-per-gallon gas tax by at least 15 to 20 cents. The tax, which will be proposed during the legislative session that begins Monday, would generate an estimated $500 million a year, which is the minimum needed to address the state’s $13 billion backlog of road and bridge maintenance projects like the La. 1 bridge, as well as megaprojects like a new span across the Mississippi River.

    Connie Fabre, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, says the La. 1 issue underscores the importance of passing such a tax this session.

    “This is a prime example of why Louisiana really needs to invest in its infrastructure,” Fabre says.

    —Stephanie Riegel

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