La. Governor’s Budget Proposal Includes Funding For Two Major Bridges

When Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards unveiled his budget proposal for fiscal year 2022 on January 24, the plan included a series of eye-popping price tags for major infrastructure projects in the state, two of which cross major waterways.

In total, Edwards’ budget proposal would set aside more than $1.1 billion in funding for infrastructure projects. A new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge would receive $500 million in funding, while a new I-10 bridge in Lake Charles over the Calcasieu River would receive $100 million. The same amount would be designated for extending I-49 in Lafayette, with another $500 million proposed for water and sewer improvements throughout the state.

Much of that funding would come from one-time sources, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the American Rescue Plan, a budget surplus from last fiscal year and extra in the current fiscal year.

“Louisiana has faced many hurdles and setbacks over the past several years, but we are on the precipice of a recovery and resurgence across all of our communities if we wisely invest our budget surplus and federal funding resources on making long-term projects that maybe once seemed like a dream—new bridges in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, as well as the completion of the I-49 Lafayette Connector and investments in the much needed rebuilding of bridges in rural Louisiana—a reality,” Edwards said. “We have a historic opportunity to improve life in communities across Louisiana, to fix problems relating to sewer and water that plague many of our cities and towns, and to strengthen critical infrastructure that will protect and support our state’s future.

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“This is what it looks like to make the most of the dollars you have,” Edwards added in his formal press conference announcing his budget. “Many of these projects have been on the books a long time. Some people probably even forgot about them, but not anymore.”

The other highlights from the governor’s proposal included budgeting $148.4 million for K-12 teachers and staff, which would translate to a $1,500 pay raise, and dedicating $550 million in American Rescue Plan funds to replenish the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund.

Both waterway crossings—the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge and the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles—are sorely needed, yet still years away from reality. The bridge over the Calcasieu River, sometimes called the “pistol bridge” for its ironwork depicting pistols in a cross pattern, opened to traffic in 1952. With a steep incline, narrow lanes and no shoulders, the bridge is used by close to 90,000 vehicles per day. The bridge has long been deemed “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete.”

Currently, the state is considering three design and alignment options, with a vertical clearance of 73 feet. The existing bridge clearance is 135 feet.

The Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, also called the “New Bridge” and the “Horace Wilkinson Bridge” is a cantilever bridge that opened to traffic in 1968. Today it sees more than 100,000 crossings per day.

The additional river crossing would both relieve some of the traffic load from the existing bridge and offer a bypass of sorts for Baton Rouge, connecting Highway 30 on the east bank to Highway 1 on the west bank to the south of the state’s capital city. According to the Capital Area Road & Bridge District and the Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development, though, “the soonest that a new bridge across the Mississippi River could be completed and open to traffic is estimated to be 2031.”

That extended timeline—and the project’s $1 billion-plus price tag—caused some state lawmakers to balk, not at the necessity of the project, but instead at the timing for the funding.

In a published response to the governor’s budget proposal, Louisiana Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder said, “Anyone who has ever driven through Baton Rouge knows the Mississippi River Bridge is a huge problem. Building an additional bridge to reduce I-10 congestion is one of many critical and much-needed investments in infrastructure, and it has my full support.”

Louisiana Senate President Page Cortez, though, speaking to Baton Rouge Public Radio, was more skeptical.

“We don’t even have a route yet,” Cortez told WRKF. “It could be more than a decade or so away if you fast-track it. So is that the best use of money, to put it in a fund for 10 to 15 years before you ever get the project off the ground?”