PPP Begins Work On New Belle Chasse Bridge Over GIWW

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LADOTD) held a virtual groundbreaking ceremony April 12 for the project to replace the Judge Perez Bridge, a vertical lift bridge over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) in Belle Chasse, La., and the accompanying tunnel that passes under the canal. The bridge forms part of Louisiana Highway 23, the main roadway that connects all the communities on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish—stretching about 70 miles between Belle Chasse and Venice—to the rest of the greater New Orleans area.

The Judge Perez Bridge opened in September 1968, while the tunnel opened to traffic in February 1956. The tunnel, innovative when it first opened, is thought to be the first tunnel in the world that did not require personnel to operate it. Today, more than 33,000 vehicles cross the structures each day, with mechanical issues at the bridge and maintenance issues in the tunnel often snarling traffic.

LADOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, speaking at the virtual groundbreaking, said the Judge Perez Bridge opens as much as 10 times daily, often for seven to 10 minutes at a time, in addition to closures due to mechanical failures.

“It is one of the most inefficient forms of transportation for us in the state of Louisiana,” Wilson said, later adding, “That makes inefficient travel for both businesses, freight haulers and, yes, of course, citizens.”

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The one-way tunnel, Wilson said, has also reached the end of its lifespan at 65 years.

“It leaks,” Wilson said, “and we’ve had enough of the jokes of it being a carwash. And it’s in constant need of repair as well.”

Under the plan, LADOTD will replace the drawbridge and tunnel with a four-lane, mid-rise, fixed-span bridge. The bridge will also feature a bike line in each direction. For the state of Louisiana, the replacement project will be a first of its kind: an infrastructure public-private partnership. The project received $45 millions from a U.S. Department of Transportation Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant, $34.4 million in other federal and state funds, $12 million from the Regional Planning Commission and $12.5 million in GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) bonds. The design and engineering phase is underway for the project, with Plenary Infrastructure Belle Chasse leading it.

“The remaining cost of about $70 million will be financed by the developer, Plenary Infrastructure Belle Chasse, and paid back through tolling operations,” Wilson said. “In addition, they will be responsible for maintaining the bridge over the lifecycle of the bridge before it’s returned to the state.”

Plaquemines Parish residents will receive a transponder at no charge. They will then be charged 25 cents per bridge crossing. Non-Plaquemines Parish motorists will pay 99 cents per crossing. Tolling will increase by a penny each year and two cents every five years, Wilson said, and it will be adjusted for inflation.

“This is a good time to say this bridge is going to be maintained better than any other bridge in our state’s system,” Wilson said.

Tolling will be in place for 30 years.

According to LADOTD, the design and construction period is expected to last for the next three years, with the new bridge opening to vehicle traffic in 2024. Demolition of the existing structures will continue into 2025.

“The replacement of this Belle Chasse bridge and tunnel shows that we can accomplish difficult things when we work together,” Wilson said. “I know it has not been easy. We’ve had lots of discussions over the last couple of years to get this done, but like with other infrastructure projects, if it was easy, it would’ve been done already.”

Wilson said the project lays the foundation for future public-private partnerships on infrastructure projects in the state.

The state has filed an application with the Eighth Coast Guard District for approval of plans. According to the Coast Guard’s public notice announcing the permit application, all of the vertical lift bridge will be demolished, with the exception of about 15 feet of the concrete tower foundations, which will serve as pier protection for the adjacent railroad bridge.

The existing bridge offers 40 feet of vertical clearance when closed and 100 feet of clearance when opened, while the proposed bridge will offer 73 feet of clearance. The existing bridge is 125 feet wide, whereas the proposed bridge will be 158 feet wide.

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking mariners to comment on navigation safety issues related to the project, specifically as they relate to clearance gauges, a bridge protection system and the need for lighting to aid nighttime navigation through the bridge spans. Operators should include vessel details, including length, draft, beam and air draft.

Comments will be received through May 1 and should be sent by mail to Office of the Commander, Eighth Coast Guard District, Hale Boggs Building, 500 Poydras St., Room 1313, New Orleans, La. 70130-3310.

Mariners should also expect construction equipment to be in place and at work from now until the end of July for the removal of the current bridge protection system and excavation work. Tows and barges will be working in the vicinity, but the navigation channel will remain clear for traffic. The drawbridge will continue to operate as usual. Mariners should contact the mv. Dutchman when approaching the bridge for to-the-minute information on construction work.