The Advocate

After nearly a quarter of a century of fits and starts, a plan to build an interchange at Interstate 10 and Pecue Lane is inching ahead amid questions on funding and when the work will be finished.

The project has long been touted as a way to ease crushing, daily traffic problems in fast-growing southeast Baton Rouge.

Standstills of a mile or two on the I-10 are daily afternoon fare for motorists exiting at Siegen Lane and at Highland Road, which is about two miles east of Siegen.

Widening Pecue Lane will create an enhanced north-south corridor, thin interstate traffic and make it easier to get to Woman’s Hospital on Airline Highway, backers said.

State Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, whose legislative district covers part of the affected area, is among the politicians encouraged that a plan that was broached in 1994 shows signs of life, including clearing and grubbing in the area. “It affects all of southeast Baton Rouge and into Ascension Parish,” Edmonds said.

Less clear is how the roughly $60 million plan will be financed, and when motorists will be able to use it.

Most high-profile highway projects, including the nearby $72 million widening of I-10 from Highland Road in Baton Rouge to La. Hwy. 73 in suburban Ascension Parish, have a clear start time, source of funding and a completion date.

But the Pecue Lane work will be done in phases – what and when depends on the dollars.

The East Baton Rouge Metro Council in March signed a deal that puts the city-parish on the hook for $44 million in construction costs, if no other funds appear.

More state and federal dollars are also possible, but questions surround both.

“We are trying to figure out a way funding wise,” said Jonathan Charbonnet, project manager for the Green Light Plan managed by East Baton Rouge Parish.

“Ideally we would like to do it as one project,” Charbonnet said. “It just helps us in terms of costs.”

“But again it is going to depend on the availability of funding,” he said.

The work, which is being managed by the city-parish, has to be done by 2025 to avoid a wide range of problems, including redoing studies and even approval for key components of the work.

“I don’t see us going all the way to 2025,” Charbonnet said. “I don’t think that is in anybody’s best interest.”

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, praised the action of the Metro Council, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and others for demonstrating progress on the Pecue Lane project before May 1, meeting a crucial deadline.

Graves noted that funding has been identified for the initial stage of the plan, including ongoing clearing and design work. “Once you get into construction and other phases is it crystal clear on the financing plan? No. Are there financing plans lined up? Yes,” he said.

The Pecue Lane interchange will be roughly halfway between Siegen Lane and Highland Road.

For most motorists, it is the nondescript overpass they breeze under daily on I-10 going to and from work.

The project calls for Pecue Lane to be widened from two to four lanes between Perkins Road and Airline Highway, separated by a boulevard.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 cars and trucks use the road daily.

The interchange will be a diverging diamond, without the typical stoplight at the end of the exit and said to be the first of its kind in Louisiana. The Pecue Lane/Ward’s Creek Bridge will be replaced. Rieger Road, which parallels I-10, will be connected to Pecue Lane.

Backers said the commercial and residential growth in the area make the project long overdue.

“There is a lot of economic activity in that part of the parish, and there can be more if we have the ability to move efficiently,” said Michael DiResto, senior vice president for economic competitiveness for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

Officials of Woman’s Hospital have been major boosters of the project, including when the Metro Council rescued the plan in March.

Stan Shelton, senior vice president for planning, development and construction at the hospital, said a Pecue Lane entrance and exit off I-10 will improve access to the hospital. “It is just a little over a mile down Pecue,” Shelton said.

“They can skip all the Airline stuff,” he said of hospital-bound motorists. “It really helps out with all the folks coming from Ascension Parish.”

The initial phase of the project – $1.2 million for clearing and grubbing – is nearing completion.

Design work has to be finished.

Then officials have to complete right of way acquisition, the last step before the project gets underway in earnest, nearly 25 years after the idea first surfaced.

The need for a new I-10 interchange was first tossed around by the state Department of Transportation and Development and the Capitol Region Planning Commission between 1994-2005. Pecue Lane was selected, and it was added to the Green Light Plan.

But the early work was sidetracked in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina brought a huge but temporary surge in new motorists to Baton Rouge. Even in 2006 there were questions on how to pay for the project, with city-parish officials complaining about the need for state or federal help.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, then a House member, recalls trying, without success, to get assistance from then Gov. Bobby Jindal eight years ago to fund the interchange. “It has been on hold since ’09,” said White, one of the leaders on road and bridge issues for the Baton Rouge area legislative delegation.

This year’s capital improvements budget includes about $13 million for the project, and another $38.5 million in a lower priority that may or may not ever materialize amid state budget problems.

Broome’s proposed transportation tax hike, which was said to be a possible funding source for Pecue Lane, would not be in its current form.

City-parish officials said in March that, if the project lacks a funding source for construction, it can use some state infrastructure credits to raise the $44 million.

That could happen if state, federal and other sources of money fail to pan out.

“It is complicated,” White said.