Campaign to Replace I-10 Louisiana Bridge Sign of the Need to Modernize Infrastructure

Imagine that a bridge in your area is considered “scary” or a “menace” or a study identified it as a “weak link” on an interstate corridor. You and your family would certainly not consider this great news.

Yet these kinds of overviews are precisely what a burgeoning area of Louisiana has faced for years because of the I-10 bridge at the city of Lake Charles.

The highly trafficked truss structure — which goes over the Calcasieu River and was built in 1952 — was originally a regional bridge but was grandfathered in to the I-10 corridor spanning California to Florida. Today, however, the bridge is being referred to as “structurally” and “functionally obsolete” and there is a movement to replace it.

The bridge’s legacy is now becoming a case of how the United States’ infrastructures woes have resounding real-life significance: vehicles idling in traffic; accidents; unsafe conditions; companies and people losing time, productivity and money; and our economy suffering.

“This is an example of transportation projects that have been put on hold and delayed and now we’re in a crisis position and it’s very crucial we do something now before tragedy occurs on the bridge,” says George Swift, President and CEO of the SWLA Economic Development Alliance, which was established in 2006. (The alliance is the umbrella for the Chamber Southwest Louisiana, a foundation and a partnership with elected officials that serve the parishes of Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis.)

The Power of America’s National System 

An interstate bridge in this location is vitally important to America’s mobility, funneling commerce and people into Southwest Louisiana but also Texas, Mississippi, New Orleans and beyond.

But the current bridge is unusually steep, has two lanes in each direction with no turn-off lanes, and there is no lighting on the bridge, explains Swift. There are frequent backups that extend for miles. When an accident occurs or a truck breaks down, traffic must stop until the accident is cleared or the truck that’s broken down is repaired or hauled away.

The alliance is helping spearhead local action and broader awareness about the need to replace the bridge. On a designed glossy card, it provided 10 reasons the bridge needs to be a top priority, including that the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) considered the bridge in poor condition and the Department of Transportation (DOT) rated it 24.9 out of 100.

Yet we should also consider that the I-10 bridge is an ideal example of the need for the federal government and states and private investors to work together to modernize America’s infrastructure. It shows how every player has a part, and is a clarion call to Louisiana’s legislators to finally pass a gas-tax increase.

Federal Monies Still Paramount to U.S. Infrastructure

Swift and the alliance are following the most recent infrastructure policy debate. And he is particularly concerned about any bill that would call for fewer federal dollars going to states and departments of transportation.

“It’s very crucial that we have federal support. Our state does not have all the funds, nor do the local agencies and government, to build a new bridge which could be an $800 million to $1 billion project. It’s very important that we have some funding and stability of that funding from the federal level,” he explains.

This means that concerns about the bridge are not just going to fade away. Lake Charles is a critical connector in our country and an economic hub. Its job market is growing, and U.S. Census data forecasts that by 2023 the region’s population will exceed 300,000.

“The I-10 bridge is very dangerous to cross so it’s our biggest infrastructure need and … it has a great impact on industry regionally and nationally, including energy production and petro-chemical plants,” maintains Swift. “We also are a community with five casinos that bring in about 4 million visitors a year, primarily from the Texas area, and so a lot of these visitors who are coming are delayed in traffic.”

Swift adds: “Right now we have $108 billion in announced projects, with $43 billion of that underway. We have 18,000 construction jobs and we’re going to create 18,000 permanent jobs. This bridge is a crucial link to this. We have liquified natural gas facilities and they will be very instrumental in helping the United States become energy independent and so without a better bridge, we can’t reach the potential that would help the entire nation.”

The latter is central because those involved in economic development in Southwest Louisiana are building and marketing the region as America’s Clean Energy Capital, and a bad bridge isn’t a plus.

Not Just Water Under a Bridge 

Transportation advocates see that the impacts of worsening infrastructure are likely why there is widespread and growing public support for raising the federal gas tax as well as states drafting and approving laws to increase their fuel user fees.

“If some of our nation’s policy leaders would look around and come visit, they could readily see we have a lot invested in industrial projects and permanent jobs that are dependent on the infrastructure being built to accommodate this traffic and to sustain a safe and reliable bridge over the Calcasieu River,” remarks Swift.

Adding to the situation, the I-10 bridge is currently undergoing maintenance work on its expansion joints, which is causing frustration and adding hours to drivers’ already long days.

The work is being done because the I-210 bridge — part of the Lake Charles bypass loop — is slated to be redecked and the I-10 bridge will need to handle more traffic.

The I-210 work will take several years. Meanwhile, the I-10 bridge will still be problematic, facing possible corrosion issues, and regularly used due to its location.

According to the alliance, the daily average traffic count is around 90,000 vehicles. This includes 18-wheelers moving through, commercial trucks, motorists heading to nearby cities and states, thousands of workers going to regional jobs, industrial sites or home, travelers visiting the area, and a public on the move.

Interestingly, the Americans for Transportation Mobility (ATM) Coalition spoke with Swift on the heels of the release of the 2018 Louisiana Survey, which revealed that most state residents prefer raising taxes than cutting spending for education and transportation.

“When you live this and get tied up in this traffic on a daily basis, you’re willing to pay for it to get the job done,” says Swift. “But there has been a lot of money that has not come to our part of the state and we’re having problems now because of an absence of funding and the neglect of the past.”

For now, the 1-10 bridge stands daily as a sign that America’s infrastructure is deteriorating and the rippling effects can be massive when legislators fail to ensure ongoing transportation revenue.

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