Bridge project goes conventional; environmental impact study next

John Dupont
The Plaquemine, La. Ferry

What's the difference between an interstate-caliber roadway and conventional highway across the Mississippi River?

One billion dollars, according to a Capital Area Road and Bridge District, which unanimously approved a measure to move forward on the project as a standard highway bridge rather than part of an interstate.

An interstate-caliber project would bring the cost of the project to $2 billion, as opposed to $1 billion for a standard bridge across the river, officials said at the meeting Monday at the State Capitol.

The Horace Wilkinson Bridge (the "new" Mississippi Bridge) from Port Allen to Baton Rouge, along with a stretch of Interstate 310 near New Orleans mark the only two interstate-caliber roadways for the Mississippi River.

The members – including Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso and West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot – also cast a unanimous vote to move forward on selection process for a firm to conduct the required environmental impact study for the project.

The $5 million study was funded in the state Capital Outlay budget Gov. John Bel Edwards recently signed.

The EIS will mark one of the longest preliminary phases for the project, for which the site has not yet been determined.

The Trump Administration wants more work done during the preliminary phase and less emphasis on the environmental study, but Dr. Eric Kalivoda, an assistant to DOTD Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson, urged against putting off the study.

"Nobody likes the time frames, but it's a process that needs to be followed," he said. "Challenges have gone to the Supreme Court umpteen times and we always run into people who want to circumvent the process, but is the rhetoric unique enough when hundreds of other challenges have failed before the Supreme Court?"

The board will have a six-month window to select the EIS consultant.

The six-month time frame may sound expedient, but it does not guarantee the project itself will move any faster, Ourso said.

"The question is how long after the selection will it take to do the study?" he said after the meeting. "Government is good, but government moves slow.

"We always think we can bring a business side to government and move it faster . . . you can improve it, but it still moves slow," Ourso said.