Fear of Baton Rouge traffic drives misinformation on I-10 expansion project
AG’s press release contained misinformation, transportation official says
Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge, La. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
Louisiana officials are working to dispel misinformation that has prompted truck drivers and the state attorney general to voice last-minute complaints about traffic due to planned lane closures for an Interstate 10 widening project in Baton Rouge.
The Louisiana Legislature’s Joint Highway Priority Construction Committee convened Thursday and heard from truck drivers concerned about the state’s plan to close a lane of traffic on a section of I-10 in Baton Rouge for about a year while construction crews widen the highway.
John Austin of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association and Jeff Cronan with Bengal Transportation asked lawmakers to halt the plan because of its anticipated effect on traffic and the nationwide truck driver shortage.
“We’re going to impact the whole entire region with one lane,” Austin said. “As a state you’re already short of drivers. Now we’re going to put them in traffic for hours.”
The stretch of interstate in Baton Rouge from the Mississippi River Bridge to the Interstate 12 split is already one of the most congested traffic corridors in the state. The state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) has plans to widen the corridor, and one of the initial phases beginning in 2024 includes expanding a section of I-10 to three lanes in each direction just east of the bridge.
DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said this will require closing a 1,200-foot stretch of one of the westbound lanes for approximately 14 months. There is currently only one lane of traffic on the eastbound side, Wilson said, explaining that drivers use an exit ramp off the bridge as a second lane and create unsafe merging conditions as a result.
The truckers’ appearance at Thursday’s meeting came on the heels of a news report last week saying traffic could be backed up for hours once the construction begins. Truckers told lawmakers that hundreds of oversized loads that travel through that section of interstate every day will have virtually no way to pass through the region because proposed alternate routes have size and weight restrictions.
However, Wilson told lawmakers DOTD only permits about 10 oversized loads per week for that area — not hundreds — and pointed out the planned detours are currently used when I-10 lanes are closed for other reasons.
“There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and most of all there’s a lot of misinformation and just wrong data about what’s actually there,” Wilson said of the project plans.
Adding to the confusion, Attorney General Jeff Landry issued a press release Thursday that incorrectly suggested DOTD was planning to reduce the entire I-10 corridor in Baton Rouge to a single lane. He accused Wilson of failing to evaluate the impacts of the project and moving forward without “providing affected individuals the opportunity to state their views.”
In a phone interview, Wilson said the attorney general’s press release is an example of the misinformation going around that creates fear and apprehension about a very large project Louisianans have talked about for decades.
“I think the AG is misinformed thinking the entire corridor is going to be reduced to one lane,” Wilson said. “That is absolutely not the case.”
Landry did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite misinformation over some of the details, everyone seems to agree that any amount of construction will make traffic worse in Baton Rouge. Lawmakers said state leaders have been discussing the interstate expansion for more than 30 years and warning that traffic congestion will only increase the longer the project is delayed.
Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine, told the truckers he shares their concerns about the lane closure and asked them to submit alternative ideas for consideration if they intend to submit complaints.
“Give us other solutions to this problem that aren’t being considered,” Brown said. “We can complain and we can complain, but unless there’s an alternative way to get it done, then we’re still going to be here two years from now saying, ‘Man, we’re 32 years behind now in needing to widen I-10.’”
Wilson said DOTD has been working on the upcoming I-10 expansion since 2015. Transportation officials collected input and feedback from more than 3,000 people during the planning process, held 11 public meetings on interstate expansion designs and conducted 87 meetings with individuals, communities and stakeholders who will be directly affected by the construction, he said.
“The reality is that those congestion points are going to be there until we get this project done,” Wilson said. “It’s been 30 years in the making to get to this point, and it’s going to be painful. But it’s going to be better permanently for the next 75 to 100 years once it gets done.”
The lane closure will last approximately 14 months, after which it will revert to two open lanes in each direction. The expansion will take about five years to complete.
Initial plans called for more than eight years of construction, but public feedback prompted DOTD to consolidate the work, including the lane closures, to reduce the project time by nearly half, Wilson said.
“There’s no doubt we have to do something with this interstate,” Brown said. “We’re going to have to build a bridge, and we’re going to have to widen that interstate. So in order for us to get that done, I realize we’re going to have to go through some pain.”
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