On a blustery day in January 2018, Gov. John Bel Edwards and a cadre of who’s who gathered on the third floor conference room of the shiny new Center for Coastal and Deltaic Studies at the Water Campus to announce a funding plan for three interstate expansion projects, including a $350 million widening of Interstate 10 through the heart of Baton Rouge.
Enthusiasm for the plan was palpable among officials who’d come for the event from all over the state, and the setting could not have been more appropriate: The room’s floor-to-ceiling windows afforded a clear view of traffic building along the nearby Mississippi River bridge.
But nearly 15 months later, engineers at the state Department of Transportation and Development, tasked with turning this much-celebrated plan into a workable project, are having a hard time answering a fundamental question: How do you widen the interstate along an already congested, 3.5-mile stretch between the base of the bridge and the I-10/I-12 split without making life for just about everybody in Baton Rouge a whole lot worse for a really long time?
The question is further complicated by the fact that in the months since the project was announced, DOTD officials have determined that the entire elevated portion of I-10—which is most of the 3.5-mile stretch—has to be not only widened but replaced.
Nobody mentioned that not insignificant detail back in January 2018, likely because they really didn’t know it at the time. Since then, however, DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson says analyses have shown that the superstructure supporting the elevated highway is past its useful life of 50 or so years and has to go.
“Why would you spend $400 million widening the interstate if it’s time to replace it?” he says. “That wouldn’t be a wise use of money.”
Perhaps not, but the logistical challenges of replacing all of elevated I-10 through much of the city is changing the dynamics of a project that was already going to be difficult, and the simple fact is no one is quite sure how it’s going to turn out.
Currently, DOTD is in the environmental assessment phase of the project, which is a federally-mandated step in a highway project that uses federal funds. DOTD officials had originally hoped to have the environmental assessment completed by last December. At least, that’s what they told everybody during a series of community meetings last August, at which the public was allowed to air their concerns about how the widening would impact their homes and businesses.
Now it’s late March, and Wilson says it will actually be mid-summer before the study is complete.
“We’d rather do it right then hurry and do it wrong,” he says.
No question that’s the prudent approach to take, especially since Wilson has suggested the project could take as long as 8 to 10 years anyway. What’s a few more months of planning?
But there is a growing realization from all segments of the community—those who support the project in the belief it will help alleviate congestion, those who oppose it on the grounds that increasing capacity is not the best way to ease gridlock, and those who just fear the chaos it will inevitably cause—that engineers and consultants are running into road blocks as they try to figure out how to make this all work.
Wilson denies there are any problems with the environmental assessment per se. But he concedes it’s taking longer than originally planned, at least in part because of the potential for two neighborhoods bordering the interstate to become designated as historic districts.
DOTD Assistant Secretary Eric Kalivoda says his department was notified by the State Historic Preservation Office last September that Hundred Oaks and Old South Baton Rouge were in the process of seeking the designation, which, if granted, would not stop the project but could slow it considerably.
Officials in the SHPO office now say they have no record of either neighborhood applying to become a historic district and they’re not sure where the idea first came from. Neither Metro Council members representing those areas nor preservation groups are aware of such efforts either. It doesn’t really make sense.
But whoever put the bug in DOTD’s ear, the department is taking the possibility seriously, which means a lot more careful planning has to go into the environmental assessment process.
“If we’re going to build a new interstate through a historic district, how do we highlight some of the historic features in those neighborhoods? How do we do a better job with landscaping?” Wilson says. “All of those are factors that go into the planning of what we do.”
Beyond the very real environmental impact issues, there is an equally real question of where the money is going to come from to complete this project. Gov. Edwards’ plan calls for using $350 million in Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle, or GARVEE bonds, to pay for the I-10 widening, which involves adding a new lane in each direction.
But everyone’s pretty much in agreement that $350 million isn’t enough to pay for the widening alone, much less the pricier, more ambitious proposal to replace the elevated portions of highway.
So far, DOTD hasn’t come up with a cost estimate and that’s not necessarily something that will show up in the environmental impact report. But it’s a question the business community and state leaders are beginning to ask as they wonder how, when and, indeed, whether I-10 will be widened.