Louisiana Announces Replacement Of Tunnel, Bridge Spanning GIWW

The state of Louisiana announced earlier this month a plan to replace the leaky-yet-venerable Belle Chasse Tunnel and Perez Bridge, which both span the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on Highway 23 in Plaquemines Parish. Traffic through the tunnel, which opened in 1955, moves southbound, while the drawbridge carries vehicular traffic northbound.

The state plans to replace the existing tunnel and drawbridge tandem with a fixed span, four-lane bridge at an estimated total cost of $122 million.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards officially announced the plan June 5, the same day he learned that the U.S. Department of Transportation had approved Louisiana’s application for an Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant totaling $45 million.

Coupled with the INFRA grant, the state will provide $26.2 million in federal funds via the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) and $12 million from the Regional Planning Commission. The balance of the $122 million needed—about $38.8 million—will come through a public-private partnership, which will operate the structure as a toll bridge.

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Edwards’ press release states, “The private partner will maintain the new bridge through the period of their contract with DOTD.”

It will be Louisiana’s first infrastructure project constructed through a Public Private Partnership. In a statement, Edwards gave thanks for the INFRA grant and called out the state’s legislators who he said failed to act on legislation in 2017 that would’ve funded the project without tolls.

“While tolling is not my first choice to addressing our infrastructure woes, it is certainly a tool at our disposal that we should consider,” Edwards said. “My administration’s position embraces a philosophy of establishing the lowest possible toll for the shortest possible time frame such that the private sector can help meet our infrastructure needs while creating jobs.”

The INFRA grant had garnered widespread support from Louisiana’s congressional delegation. Late last year, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), along with Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Ralph Abraham (R-La.) and Clay Higgins (R-La.) sent a joint letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao supporting the grant for the new bridge, noting that the span will connect nearby refineries, oil and gas infrastructure, the Port of Plaquemines and the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans to the New Orleans Metro Area. According to Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the tunnel and bridge currently see daily traffic of about 33,000 vehicles. They are the primary point of access to and from Plaquemines Parish.

“This project is very important to our region, and I am happy to have worked with Gov. Edwards and the Louisiana Department of Transportation to make it possible,” said State Rep. Chris Leopold of Plaquemines Parish. “This has been a long time coming, but with this administration’s commitment, we can continue to work toward making this a reality.”

According to LaDOTD, construction of the new span will take around three years, although the project is still in the very early planning stages. LaDOTD plans to undertake both projects with as little disruption to marine and vehicular traffic as possible.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) joined the chorus praising the announcement.

“I’m excited that Plaquemines Parish will soon benefit from this $45 million grant and will now be able to move forward with the replacement of the Belle Chasse Tunnel and Perez Bridge, which are critical to daily commuters and hurricane evacuations,” Scalise said.

“The Belle Chasse Bridge and Tunnel are in poor condition,” Kennedy said. “The tunnel leaks so much that it’s basically a car wash, and the bridge isn’t much better. Replacing and updating these structures will be a relief to drivers in Plaquemines Parish.”