Planned I-10 widening will involve replacing elevated highway through Baton Rouge

Though final plans for widening the roughly 3.5-mile stretch of interstate won’t be released for several months, what is known is that the project is massive, comprehensive and ambitious. Not only is the state planning to add a new lane in each direction of I-10, which will involve changing, closing and relocating several existing interchanges; it also intends to replace the entire elevated portion of the interstate.

Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson says the 60-year-old structure is nearing the end of its life and will need to be replaced within 15 years anyway, so it only makes sense to do it now while adding a third lane in each direction.

“Whether it’s a widening or reconstruction, elements of this are going to have to occur at some point,” he says. “The longer it takes the more expensive and complicated it is going to be.”

Building a new structure means existing piers and pilings under the highway will also be replaced, which ultimately, Wilson says, will make for a more attractive, useful and quieter space for neighborhood businesses that currently utilize it.   

The work will be done in phases that are projected to take between five and seven years. The first phase will begin at the base of the Mississippi River Bridge and work east to the City Park Lakes.

The second phase will involve replacing the highway over the lakes. The third phase will extend from the lakes over the Perkins Road Overpass neighborhood past S. Acadian Thruway to College Drive, and the final phase will tie in a flyover ramp from College Drive to the I-10/I-12 split.

“Folks hear seven years and think, ‘Gee, my business will be in a difficult environment for seven years,’” Wilson says. “In reality, it might be a year and a half, and it might only be a month or so that you hear and see structure being pulled away and things being brought in and out on the structure. … When you build bridges these days there are a lot of things you can do offsite, so it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle and is less invasive than you might think.”

Wilson says the state will build from the outside-in to minimize disruptions, both to vehicles that travel the highway and properties on the ground below it. To that end, work crews will begin with one side of the interstate and add an exterior lane then divert traffic onto it so they can raze and rebuild the interior lanes. Once that is completed, work will begin work on the other side.

“You build the new then replace the old,” he says. “It’s more complex when you do it on elevated interstate than on the ground but it’s not like it’s never been done before.”

As the reality of the project, which is rapidly moving through the federal approval process, begins to dawn on property and business owners in the shadow of I-10, concerns are growing. Kalurah Street Grill co-owner Brad Watts says he questions the project—not because it will negatively impact his restaurant, but because an entire commercial district stands to be disrupted, if not destroyed, for a project that, by itself, may not alleviate the Capital Region’s chronic gridlock.

“Is this the right project?” he says. “Because without a new bridge across the river, which is where all the tie-ups occur, what good is it going to do to widen the interstate?”

Wilson is familiar with that argument and takes issue with it. For one, he says a data-driven analysis in 2015 conducted by the industry-led group CRISIS ranked the widening as the single most important project—and the one that would deliver the most bang for the buck—in alleviating gridlock.

The widening project is also more doable than the new bridge in the sense that the state already owns 95% of the right of way and property it needs. To build a new bridge, by comparison, the state would have to start from scratch acquiring property, rights of way and relocating utilities—and not only to build the bridge but also to build the miles of access roads tying it to the interstate on both sides of the river.

The state is already working on it, analyzing three locations at the moment. But the process will take 15 years at best, Wilson says.

On top of all that, the state has already identified money for the I-10 widening project—federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle Bonds—which allow the state to repay the debt with federal highway funds the state receives each year.

“I can spend $360 million building roads, or we can spend $150 million and years acquiring right of way, real estate, relocation of utilities (for a new bridge) and still have nothing to drive on,” he says. “This project is not going to bring more cars to the interstate. It will manage the cars currently on the interstate and it will bring us the most value.”

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