Sen. Heitmeier discusses Belle Chasse bridge and tunnelAug 7th, 2012 | By Jessica Gonzalez | Category: news
State Senator David R. Heitmeier, O.D., whose state senate district includes the Belle Chasse area, says that traffic and replacing the dilapidated Belle Chasse Bridge and Tunnel were the top complaints from Plaquemines Parish residents five years ago and continues to be number one today.
“When I decided to run for public office, my advisers told me success in politics required good people skills. They said you need to ‘build bridges’,” referring to relationship building, “but little did I know that we needed to literally build bridges to satisfy the concerns of Plaquemines residents,” Heitmeier joked.
“While we are not yet close to driving pilings, significant progress has been made on the preliminary steps for both the Peter’s Road Bypass and replacing the Belle Chasse Bridge and tunnel.” But actual construction will depend on large amounts of money at a time when state funding continues to be a challenge. “Along with state and federal transportation officials, we are researching alternative sources of funding,” Heitmeier said.
When Phase I of the Peter’s Road Bypass was started earlier this year, which extends from Hwy 23 to near the Intracoastal Waterway, the rest of the project remained unfunded. Not only was Phase II in jeopardy, but state project managers were going to halt design work on Phase 3 without Phase 2 funding. “The worst thing to happen would have been to interrupt this project.” said Heitmeier. Bruce Badon, Vice-President of BKI, Inc. the firm which engineered the project credits Heitmeier with keeping it on track. “Senator Heitmeier works hard on follow-through on projects in his district. Several impasses on the Peter’s Road project have been resolved when he has taken the time to convene the right parties needed to overcome hurdles and he has helped to keep the project on schedule”, said Badon.
In the 2012 session of the legislature, that significant challenge was overcome when $19.5 million was secured for the Jefferson Parish approaches of the bridge. “Phase III, which is the bridge, will require 70 to 80 million dollars. We will have to be creative in identifying how to pay for that portion,” Heitmeier added.
If building one bridge isn’t enough, Heitmeier believes the slow, meticulous process to replace the Belle Chasse Bridge and Tunnel is progressing. “While campaigning in Belle Chasse in 2007, it was apparent that replacing the Belle Chasse bridge was the most desired need of the community. In December, 2007, immediately after being elected, I worked with local officials and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) on the consultant selection for the feasibility study of replacing the bridge, which was the first step.”
“It’s human nature to not believe it’s happening if you don’t see it happening, but I can assure you we are making progress,” Heitmeier said. Three vital steps on replacing the antiquated structures are needed. The first being the Feasibility Study to replace the Belle Chasse Tunnel and Bridge which was completed by BKI, Inc. under contract to DOTD in July 2009. The study identified three feasible alternatives to replace the tunnel with a bridge with estimated costs ranging from $86 million to $132 million. The $132 million structure would be a fixed span and the two cheaper alternatives would be high-elevation bridges still required to be open for tall vessels.
On August 11, 2011, the Regional Planning Commission (RPC) which is the gatekeeper for federal highway funds became involved. An agreement was executed for a Stage 1 Environmental Assessment and the RPC selected BKI, Inc., to conduct the study with the cost being split by the RPC and Plaquemines Parish. On June 29, 2012, the contract was executed and the environmental assessment is now underway and expected to take 12-18 months.
“Government red tape, both state and federal, is to blame for the slow process and some of the costs in replacing or building a bridge,” Heitmeier said. “It’s all needed to protect the safety and assets of our citizens but it does get frustrating. When looking at options with federal transportation officials, we found that federal programs available to fund replacement bridges had a prohibition on replacing tunnels,” Heitmeier added.
This problem was remedied with the passage of the new Federal Transportation Bill MAP-21. The Interstate Maintenance Program, National Highway System Program, and the Highway Bridge Program were merged into the National Highway Performance Program. This eliminated the prohibition against using Federal Bridge Program funds for tunnel replacement projects.
“At DOTD, we are committed to moving this project toward construction by working through the preconstruction phases and with local advocates like Senator Heitmeier to examine creative funding solutions for future improvement efforts,” said Sherri Lebas, Secretary of Transportation for the State of Louisiana.
“Right now we are throwing millions of dollars at the bridge and tunnel with a ‘band aid’ approach. The Corps is drilling wells around the tunnel to capture water and pump it out since the flood wall has caused the water table to rise. DOTD has tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to stop the leaks and the tunnel cleaning is inconsistent and infrequent. It’s not surprising the traffic problems and safety hazards are behind the number one complaint I receive from Plaquemines residents. Finding funding for the permanent solution and continuing the preparation process will continue to be my number one priority,” Heitmeier said.
“We all can appreciate the convenience of new modern bridges, but we have to consider the safety and loss of life. While DODT will swear to me the tunnel is safe from collapse, it doesn’t take an expert to see the hazardous driving conditions which exist from a constantly wet and muddy roadway,” he said. “I am determined to get these projects complete.”
Heitmeier credits the progress to-date with teamwork. “It’s easy to blame DOTD or Plaquemines Parish but problems like this exist in every corner of the state. The solution is everyone getting on board and I believe we have done this with support from DOTD, Plaquemines Parish, the RPC and our entire Plaquemines delegation.