PRICE OF PROGRESS: Traffic woes have long been identified as among the Baton Rouge region’s top problems, but there’s growing concern from residents and businesses likely to be impacted by the state’s plan to widen Interstate 10 through the city. (File photo)
When Gov. John Bel Edwards in January 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—the local portion of the project was heralded as a long overdue solution to the Capital Region’s chronic gridlock.
But nearly nine months later, as the project moves through the federal planning process with surprising speed, the reality of what widening the interstate will mean is causing growing concern for the property and business owners in the literal shadow of I-10.
Merchants in the Perkins Road overpass area, a historic corridor of more than a dozen popular bars, restaurants and retailers, have been the most vocal because they stand to lose the most. Their small businesses are at ground zero of what will be a massive construction site. But those who live near the City Park lakes—over which elevated portions of interstate will be completely replaced—are also worried, as are some community leaders in Old South Baton, where road patterns will be disrupted.
Such concerns have been verbalized before, when previous attempts to widen I-10 were floated. Unlike in the past, however, the state has the money to address what a frustrated population ranks as the Capital Region’s biggest problem: traffic congestion.
And there’s the rub. Residents throughout the region have been calling for traffic-relieving projects for decades—even if they don’t necessarily want to pay the taxes to fund many of them—yet those most likely to be impacted by the I-10 widening are saying there’s got to be a better way.
State officials are being proactive with their communication efforts to address the growing concerns of those who will be most impacted, but they’re not backing down. This project, they say, must go forward for the good of the region and the state.
“It appears invasive. It appears devastating. It is different. It will not be business as usual,” Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson says. “But we will work with businesses and property owners to mitigate the impacts on them … it would be unfair for them to hold the whole state hostage.”
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. The plan is to add a new lane in each direction of I-10 through Baton Rouge, which will involve changing, closing and relocating several existing interchanges. Significantly, the project also involves replacing the entire elevated portion of the interstate.
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 all existing piers and pilings under the highway will also be replaced, which Wilson says will ultimately 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 expected to take a total of between five and seven years. The project will start 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 South 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, and it’s less invasive than you might think.”
But business owners are concerned. Though the state has said it only needs to expropriate four commercial properties—and, in some cases, not even the entirety of those properties but just pieces of them—there are worries about what the long-term presence of construction crews and heavy equipment will do to an area that has become a dining and entertainment destination in recent years.
“At some point there is going to be a barricade on Perkins Road that goes up and says, “No through traffic. Construction vehicles only,’” says Kalurah Street Grill owner Brad Watts. “Who’s going to want to go there? Rock-n-Sake, Zippy’s, The Royal Standard, Bet-R—we’re all going to go out of business.”
Parking is another concern. When construction begins, all the businesses that currently use the space under the highway for customer parking —and, admittedly, the space does belong to the state— will lose it, at least while the project is underway.
“Where are they going to put all their equipment?” wonders George’s owner Smokey Bourgeois. “Businesses won’t have anywhere to park. It’s going to shut them down.”
Wilson concedes the construction process will be disruptive. Businesses may have to shut down for a week or more at a time, he says. But the state is actively working on plans that will mitigate the impact as much as possible. As currently envisioned, any business interruption will be of limited duration, he says, pointing to the Overpass Merchant bar and restaurant as an example.
“We are going to have to take their awning down (which covers an outdoor seating area) and replace it after construction … and the back half of their building will have to come down, too,” he says. “But it will be replaced after we’re done. So there are things that are doable.”
The owners of the Overpass Merchant did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer is also worried, and has submitted lengthy comments to the state questioning various aspects of the project. He’s particularly concerned about planned changes to surface streets in Old South Baton Rouge that will result from the changes to certain interchanges near downtown.
“Any closures or separation of neighborhood streets should be studied and minimized,” Rhorer says in his letter. “The closure and or separation of neighborhood streets has historically divided neighborhoods and spurred disinvestment and safety issues amongst the nearby properties.”
Residents near the Perkins Road overpass and also East Lakeshore Drive—which will be impacted when the elevated portions of the interstate over the lakes are removed and replaced—are also beginning to eye the project nervously. Some are talking to attorneys. Others are beginning to make calls to those in positions of power at the state.
Has Wilson heard from some? Yes, he says.
“That’s why we’ve been meeting in coffee shops and in living rooms for months to try to make people understand why this is so important,” he says.
While it’s understandable that those with a vested interest would be concerned about the project—and just as understandable that the state is trying to balance what’s best for the region with the needs of a single neighborhood—Watts and others believe there’s an important issue that’s not being discussed.
“Is this the right project?” he says. “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? They’re going to destroy a neighborhood and it won’t achieve anything.”
Wilson dismisses that argument. First, he points out that 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. Second, the state has identified money for the project—federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle Bonds—which allow the state to repay the debt with federal highway funds the state receives each year.
Perhaps most importantly, the state already owns 95% of the rights of way and property it needs to complete the widening project. To build a new bridge, by comparison, the state would have to start from scratch in acquiring property, utilities and rights of way—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, he says.
“I can spend $360 million building roads, or we can spend $150 million and years acquiring rights 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.”
When the project is completed, Wilson argues that not only will the entire region be better off but even those merchants and property owners in the path of construction will be, too. Parking and lighting for businesses under the highway will be improved. Residents will benefit from new, more effective sound barriers that will be erected along the highway. Stalled efforts to dredge and rejuvenate the City Park lakes could be revived and coordinated with the interstate construction project.
“What a lot of folks don’t realize is in some ways we’ll be able to make things better,” he says.
It sounds promising. But skeptics aren’t entirely convinced.
“They genuinely seem to care about wanting to help us, and we want to stay where we are,” says Stephen Hightower, whose City Park Deli & Charcuterie sits under the interstate. “We’re just not sure we’re going to be able to make it.”