Big industrial projects clog River Parish traffic
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Traffic has a tendency to drag along the Sunshine Bridge once the workday is over. The four-lane span over the Mississippi River between St. James and Ascension parishes is undergoing extensive repairs and has been reduced to one lane in each direction. Construction won't be complete for at least a year.
Nearby, fertilizer manufacturer CF Industries is spending $2.1 billion to expand its facilities on the west side of the river. The job has required upwards of 2,000 construction workers to complete the project by 2016, only compounding the traffic problem.
Road congestion isn't isolated to this single country road. In St. James Parish, traffic problems have been reported from construction at the Nucor steel plant. In Ascension Parish, the state highway that skirts the Mississippi River and numerous petrochemical plants sees regular backups.
The benefits of economic development in the region are obvious. Every day, thousands of construction workers are driving into these areas, and more high-paying permanent jobs are being created. As Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez puts it, "If you want a job in manufacturing and live in this parish, you got it. There is no drought of jobs here."
On the other hand, the backlash of rapid growth is also apparent in these rural communities. As the petrochemical industry continues to grow, the need to expand state roads and improve infrastructure has become critical.
Martinez said that for Ascension Parish to support its growth, money is needed to expand a portion of Louisiana Highway 30 to a four-lane road, as well as portions of Louisiana Highway 70, which leads to the Sunshine Bridge, and Louisiana Highway 44. He estimates it would require $15 million a year to maintain the current conditions of these roads. The parish currently has about $8 million that can be used in that respect.
Ascension Parish's population, estimated at more than 112,000 in 2012, is expected to double over the next 10 years. In preparation, local leaders are trying to set a course of action to make sure "all types of infrastructure" — roads, sewerage and housing — are sufficient to support the influx of new residents and commuters, Martinez said.
In St. James, the situation is just as pressing. Parish President Timmy Roussel said traffic backs up daily along Louisiana Highways 3125 and 3127, which run roughly parallel on each side of the Mississippi River. Parish government is currently trying to find money to expand those roads to four lanes to handle the increasing traffic.
In addition to the Nucor and CF Industries projects, two methanol facilities with a combined value exceeding $3 billion are planned for St. James. Together they will create nearly 500 jobs, adding to the existing traffic woes.
Although the parish stands to benefit from more employment and sales tax revenue once the projects are complete, Roussel said that the region is "definitely feeling its share of growing pains."
"It makes me question whether the state did some type of traffic survey before they offered these gigantic incentives to these plants to come here," he said.
Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret was not made available for an interview for this story. In an email, he said the LED's involvement in transportation infrastructure is limited to "project-specific needs, such as access roads or rail spurs."
"While prospects are often very interested in Louisiana's infrastructure assets, they rarely express concerns about traffic congestion."
Moret added that LED has no "material amount of funding" that could be used to address traffic.
The same is true for the state Department of Transportation and Development, where money to improve and maintain roads is hard to come by. The department is currently facing a $12 billion backlog of needed road repairs and highway upgrades.
Dennis Decker, DOTD assistant secretary for multimodal planning, said the department is aware of the situation in the River Parishes and is looking at different solutions.
DOTD representatives are part of a working group with the Greater Baton Rouge Industrial Alliance, whose membership includes major plants and petrochemical facilities along the river. Its goal is to identify specific problem areas on state roads surrounding large-scale construction, focusing in particular on Mississippi River crossings.
"Some of those intersections were already causing problems before even the construction started. It just exacerbated it," Decker said.
The working group has identified three major areas that require immediate attention due to traffic problems: the La. 1 corridor in Plaquemines Parish; the Interstate 10 Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge; and the La. 30 corridor in East Ascension.
They are also considering adding a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish as well more capacity to ferries.
Connie Fabre, a spokeswoman for the working group, said industry leaders who are part of the effort are looking for workable solutions that can be implemented within the next 18 months.
"We are already starting to see an effect on being able to recruit and retain employees because of the traffic issue," Fabre said. "Everyone is very excited about the new investment, but they don't realize that there is a cost involved."
Without citing specific companies, Fabre explained certain members of the working group located along the chemical corridor are concerned about their workers' ability to get to work on time because of traffic problems.
State road repairs are paid for in large part with a 20-cent per gallon tax on gasoline purchases that goes into the Transportation Trust Fund. Although the fund balance will reach $570 million this fiscal year, the vast majority is supposed to go to projects already in the pipeline.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have tapped the fund for approximately $60 million to pay state police retirement, leaving about $27 million for new roadwork, said state Sen. Robert Adley, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
He estimated the state would need to set aside at least $70 million for road preservation, which he said could be collected from sales tax dollars.
"Our chemical industry has been able to grow by leaps and bounds, but you have to have the infrastructure to support it," Adley said. "If you don't have the roads and highways going in and out of the region, you have nothing."