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Here's the details of the project:

Celebration to mark the rebirth of the Huey P. Long

By Rob Nelson
West Bank bureau

There was no shortage of pageantry that Monday afternoon in December 1935.

Thousands of school children sang, planes flew overhead, politicians delivered boastful speeches and a ceremonial train ride cradled more than 1,200 dignitaries in the first official trip of its kind high above the Mississippi River.

Clearly a product of the public adoration for the first Louisiana span to conquer the “American Father of Waters,” the concrete and steel giant Huey P. Long Bridge was hailed “a marvel of engineering skill and artistic beauty.”

Seventy-one years later, officials today will again gather at the span, not to celebrate in awe but instead to usher in a rebirth of the outdated — even feared — railroad bridge, as it undergoes a $660 million facelift to widen its infamously narrow lanes and transform its roadway approaches into modern interchanges.

More than 20 years in the making, the project, scheduled for completion in 2011, will not only allow commuters to eventually loosen their white-knuckled grips on the steering wheel but will also, officials hope, further accelerate development of the West Bank, where Jefferson Parish’s last tracts of vast green space sit ripe for growth.

“I think this is one of the most important infrastructure projects that Jefferson will be launching in its modern history,” Parish President Aaron Broussard said. “You’ll see the West Bank reach its fullest potential.”
Discussed since the early 1980s but beset primarily by fiscal uncertainties, the long-awaited start of the work comes 17 years after a historic transportation plan approved by voters made the widening one of 16 key transportation projects financed through a gasoline tax.

It also arrives on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, which largely spared Jefferson but has spawned a critical need for housing and the rebuilding of tattered infrastructure throughout metro New Orleans.

“This sends a signal to the rest of the world about our commitment to revitalization,” said Johnny Bradberry, secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development, who was a key figure in speeding up the completion dates for the gas-tax projects after taking the post in 2004.

Beyond symbolizing post-storm perseverance, the 4.4-mile bridge, which handles more than 50,000 vehicles daily, will also present logistical headaches for motorists, who will have to contend with additional traffic woes on top of the backlogs that have become a dreaded trademark of travel across the span.

Lane closures and lane shifts are planned and brief stoppages during non-peak hours are expected. But officials stress that it will be mid-2007 before those changes befall commuters.

“The bridge will never be completely closed,” said Dana Newsome, a spokeswoman for highway program financing the widening.

Like all other officials, Newsome acknowledges the inevitable traffic woes but emphasizes the long-awaited bottom line.

“We’re getting one step closer to a safer, wider Huey P. Long Bridge,” she said.

The widening of the bridge is precisely what the West Bank needs as it braces for significant growth and an expected population boom, elected leaders and developers say.

They believe improved access to the area should further entice both residents and businesses.

“In a post-Katrina world, it could not come at a better time,” Broussard said.

In fact, the project’s launch dovetails with several other West Bank endeavors: the 2004 opening of the TPC of Louisiana golf course in Avondale, this month’s groundbreaking of the Churchill Technology and Business Park in Avondale and a California developer’s proposal to build as many as 20,000 homes in the area to help with hurricane recovery.

“The future of Jefferson Parish is on the West Bank,” Parish Council Chairman John Young said. “That’s where most of the raw, undeveloped land is.”

“Just the knowledge of (the widening) coming is helping,” said real estate developer Jack Stumpf, predicting developers might be drawn to the area by improved access.

Officials liken the Huey P. Long project to the 1958 opening of the first span of the Crescent City Connection.

That $65 million project ushered in a period of rapid growth and delivered a shot in the arm to the “sleepy little communities” of Gretna and Harvey, Stumpf said, adding that Waggaman, Avondale and Westwego are now poised for the same growth rush.

“There’s a lot of development on the West Bank I think you can attribute to the arrival of the Crescent City Connection,” developer N. Buckner “Buck” Barkley said.

He also noted that post-Katrina needs may further advance the expected development surge.

“Even before Katrina, the widening and improvement (of the bridge) was definitely going to open up areas of the West Bank for development,” he said. “I think the demand for housing may accelerate that process.”

The expansion project is being partially paid for through the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development, or TIMED, program, approved by legislators and voters in 1989. An indefinite 4-cent tax at the gas pumps and more than $800 million in state-issued bonds funds the 16-project program.

Though Louisiana had “every excuse to slow the program down,” after Katrina, Bradberry said he is confident the state can afford to proceed with the widening and notes the project is less expensive than the $1 billion price tag of erecting a new bridge.

Yet the project has spiraled from an initial estimate of $300 million to $660 million, which officials attribute to higher costs for materials and labor and other post-Katrina factors.

“You have so much rebuilding that requires steel and concrete, the market can’t keep up with it,” Newsome said. “The majority of the increase is because of the post—Katrina market.”

The Huey P. Long Bridge, named after the state’s former populist governor who was assassinated three months before the bridge opened, still ranks as the longest steel railroad bridge in the nation.

Constructed at a time when traffic was lighter and cars were smaller, the bridge cost $13 million to build and was the 29th span to transverse the Mississippi. More than 200 bridges now span the river.

The structure’s widening, which has already cost about $13 million in design and engineering studies, will proceed in four phases:
--Widening the piers beneath the bridge, slated for completion in early 2008. An $83 million contract for this phase was awarded in February to Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Mo.
--Modification to the existing railroad track, expected to start this summer and be finished by mid-2007.
--Expansion of the existing roadway, slated to start in early 2007 and completed by mid-2010. The bridge will expand from two 9-foot lanes on each side — with barely existent shoulders — to three 11-foot lanes on each side with 10 feet of shoulder each.
--Reconfiguration of the approaches to the bridge, expected to start mid-2007 and finished by late 2011.

Currently, there are traffic circles at each end of the bridge, but they will be replaced with interchanges similar to the on- and off-ramps along the West Bank Expressway.

The project will result in the relocation of 17 businesses, seven on the West Bank and an estimated 10 on the east bank. Contrary to earlier designs, there are no residential displacements planned.

A Nine-Mile Point resident for 54 years, Ina Manshack has never been a fan of driving, which is why her late and current husbands have handled most of the commuting, especially across the Huey P. Long.

“It’s too narrow,” said Manshack, 82. “It’s still scary to me. I close my eyes when I go over.”

Pointing to the daily occurrence of backlogs triggered by breakdowns or “sideswipe” accidents, Causeway Police Chief Felix Loicano said residents’ frustration with the bridge is understandable and has only worsened as larger vehicles such as debris trucks travel the span more frequently since the hurricane.

With the lack of shoulders a particular hazard, Loicano said his department deals with nearly 40 accidents on the bridge per month and that congestion at high-traffic hours warrants police direction at the traffic circles that bookend the bridge.

“We’re talking about great congestion, great frustration and a tremendous backlog,” he said, praising the widening. “It’s going to make the bridge much safer and the commute much more enjoyable.”

Residents near the bridge uniformly welcome a smoother, less stressful ride across the span, but that hasn’t stopped some from challenging state officials for years over worries that the work would damage their houses and choke their neighborhood with traffic gridlock.

“It’s going to be a logistical nightmare,” said George Van Houten, who has lived in Nine-Mile Point for 41 years. “I’m not against progress. I just want some common sense in the project.”

After years of sometimes heated public meetings, the state has seemingly taken those complaints to heart as the work begins.

In an April 19 letter to Van Houten from the state, DOTD officials made several offers: to expand the monitoring of potential home damage, to stay in communication with residents through various outlets and to work with parish leaders to establish a traffic management plan.

“We’re addressing the majority of the concerns we’ve heard,” said Cedric Grant, deputy secretary of DOTD in an interview this week.

The parish must also address residents’ concerns, Young said, adding, though, that the overall public good trumps minor annoyances.

“At the end of the day, there always some inconvenience when progress is being made,” he said. “This is going to bring economic development. This is going to bring jobs. It’s going to allow their children and grandchildren to have a better future.”

The groundbreaking, which is open to the public, is scheduled for 2 p.m. near South Clearview Parkway and the east bank levee of the river.

(Rob Nelson can be reached at [email protected] or at (504) 826-3796.)
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