BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Before the sun ever rises, cars braking light up the dawn sky. No matter the time or location, traffic never really lets up.
“You’re talking two to three hours out of your day to drive eight miles to and from work. It’s just a giant waste of time,” said Clay Elliott, who lives in Baton Rouge, but works in Brusly.
Thanks to the recent debacles on the LA 1 Intracoastal Bridge, traffic for nearly all of metro Baton Rouge has literally come down to a crawl.
“We’re going about 7 miles an hour,” said Elliott. “We’re virtually held hostage on this side of the Intracoastal and it’s a pretty scary situation.”
"The reality is this leads to a much bigger problem," said Louisiana Congressman Garrett Graves.
Graves is referring to the elephant in the room, so to speak.
Kiran: Do you see a new bridge coming in our lifetime?
Graves: Absolutely I do, and I don’t like to go out there and make promises we can’t keep. I do and for one reason is the gridlock or the urgency of this situation.
“We have to have the funding to build the bridge,” said DOTD Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson. “The reality is there is a process I have to follow in order to use federal funds. That involves us to go through an Environment Impact Statement.”
Dr. Wilson says that study has yet to formally begin and when it does, it could take three to five years before it’s completed.
“Should it have been done earlier? Absolutely. Those are questions for previous governors, previous administrations, previous secretaries, previous mayors,” said Wilson.
The 9News Investigators looked into how much has been spent on studies for another bridge. Only one study has focused on an actual bridge: the Stage 0 study that was done in 2016 to determine if building a new bridge would actually divert enough traffic off I-10 to no longer need to widen the interstate. The study proved that even with another bridge, I-10 still needs widening. The other three studies focused on bypasses or loops.
There was a Freeway Bypass study done in 1995 by the Capital Region Planning Commission at a cost of $289,000. Then, there was the South Bypass study in 1998 in which the federal government paid $675,000. A loop study was done in 2008 for $1 million, half paid for by Louisiana taxpayers from state surplus and the other half by the federal government. That’s a total of $1,964,000. Add to that the cost of the Stage 0 study of $347,000. So far, $2,311,000 has been spent just on studies. Not to mention the next phase in the Stage 0 study is an environment impact review that will cost roughly an additional $5 million. That brings the total up to $7.3 million.
“A $700 to 800 million bridge cost, potentially $1.1 billion when you tie it to I-10 on either side of the Mississippi River,” said Wilson. “So that $7 million has yet to really scratch the surface of the full scope of this project because this is a significant piece of infrastructure we’re talking about and I dare not go into it without doing my due diligence or the homework necessary to make it work.”
“I don’t think we have properly prioritized some of the dollars that have been provided to the State of Louisiana over years and decades. I’ll say it again. We have bridges that don’t have many cars on them. You have roads that don’t have many cars on them,” said Graves.
One of the bridges he’s referring to is the Audubon Bridge in St. Francisville, which was built in 2011 for $409 million.
“We often get criticized for the legislators’ decision to place the Audubon Bridge in the Felicianas. It was half a billion dollars roughly and it has 2,000 cars a day. That’s not the infrastructure we should be providing to the citizens,” said Wilson.
As time passes, the cost for a bridge only increases. For example, the Luling Bridge in Destrahan was built in 1983 for $135 million. The new Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge cost $46 million in 1968. The Sunshine Bridge in Convent was built in 1964 for $30,750,000, while the old Mississippi River Bridge was built in 1940 for $8,360,718.
“People say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re asking me for more money, yet look at these monuments to inefficiency that you’ve built,'” said Graves.
Dr. Wilson says by late 2019, Louisiana will run out of money to match any federal transportation funds. He added Governor John Bel Edwards has pledged whatever funds he can to match federal money, but that’s not sustainable.
Congressman Graves says he will not apologize for over-performing in securing federal funds. In fact, he says he would have already been seeking federal money for another bridge if his hands were not tied.
“If we would have started doing the alignment study determining where this bridge should go when we should have done it, we wouldn’t be talking about this bridge right now. We would have known years or decades ago where that bridge needed to be, how much it cost, what type of dollars we need to try and secure, and we could be building right now,” he said.
“We’ve identified that there are only five locations that the Coast Guard will allow a bridge to be built because of the way the river moves,” said Wilson.
Part of that Environmental Impact Statement, which is also referred to as the alignment study, is figuring out how DOTD will fund the bridge.
“Recognizing that the gas tax is only $0.16 and it was $0.16 in 1989, I don’t have the resources at hand to build new infrastructure,” said Dr. Wilson. “We’re forced with do we take care of what we have already built and what we’re responsible for or do we just build new stuff and let those others go into a state of disrepair?”
"We're prepared to put up the funding for the project," said Founding Partner of Bernhard Capital Jim Bernhard.
Bernhard says he’s willing to finance the estimated $1 billion a new bridge will cost.
Kiran: How serious are you when you say you’re willing to finance a new bridge?
Bernhard: We don’t say things haphazardly. We don’t commit to making finances or equity in projects unless we’re prepared to move forward, period.
Kiran: People are saying they’re never going to see a new bridge in their lifetime.
Bernhard: Well, depending on how old you are I guess, but we go with a saying we have here is, ‘Never say never. Never say forever,’ so I assure you, in my lifetime, hopefully we will have a new bridge.
Bernhard says several revenue sources would pay him back over time, such as tolls and perhaps an increased gas tax.
“Let’s get on with it. I mean, there’s a lot of work to get done. The earliest it’s going to be done is seven years, so we can keep talking about it year after year,” said Bernhard.
“Absolutely. I’m absolutely willing to let Jim Bernhard or anyone else through the right process finance the bridge. Here’s the question: how do I pay Jim Bernhard back?” said Wilson.
“I think people are going to start swimming soon if we don’t do something about a new bridge,” said Graves.
“It’s a lot less expensive to build it now, start on it today, than it is a decade from now,” said Bernhard.
It’s why Bernhard says the people need to do their part by calling their legislators every single day and put the heat on them for a new bridge.
“I’m so tired of hearing politicians say we have to do more with less. Well, go ahead and try to call a contractor and ask them if they want to do a road or bridge for free and you’re going to find no. What you going to tell them? We have to do more with less and they’re going to say, ‘You want less concrete or you want less steel?’ I mean, it’s a silly thing to say, so quit acting silly and address the problem,” said Bernhard.
So eventually, Baton Rouge will not rank 13th worst for traffic in the country, worse than Dallas, Denver, and even Chicago.