Former Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, Chuck Kleckley, talked about a hot button topic in West Calcasieu Wednesday, discussing bridges at the Wednesday meeting of the Sulphur Rotary Club.
While the 66-year-old Interstate-10 bridge has been rated “structurally sound” by the DOTD, the Federal Highway Administration’s own data designates it as “structurally deficient.” A complete replacement of the bridge has been discussed for many years, but contamination in the waters below from a 1994 ethylene dichloride spill has put the kibosh on any progress.
“If you talk to Conoco-Phillips, they say you can drive pilings 100 feet in and you won’t impact that contamination,” Kleckley said. “But if you talk to DOTD they say you can’t do that.”
Kleckley said replacement will cost anywhere from $700 million to $1 billion. “Now they’re (the state) telling us they don’t want to do the I-10 bridge because they want to get the I-210 bridge done.
“But they just spent $600 million in Baton Rouge, Nw Orleans, and Shreveport. They’re going to add a lane from the Mississippi River Bridge to the I-10 and I-12 split in Baton Rouge for $400 million. They’re putting $100 million in Shreveport and another $100 million at the airport in New Orleans.”
Kleckley said that money would go a long way into fixing the Calcasieu River bridge. “It’s my opinion and my opinion only that the issue in Baton Rouge is a convenience issue,” said Kleckley. “We all hate Baton Rouge traffic, but that’s convenience issue. This is a safety issue here in Lake Charles with the I-10 bridge.”
Kleckley said the population distribution dictated the expenditures. “A lot more people live over there than live here in Southwest Louisiana,” he said.
Bids for the re-decking of the Interstate-210 bridge will go out at the end of this month, and construction is expected to begin later this year. He said while he was still in the Legislature, plans were discussed for closing two of the bridge’s four lanes, possibly for three years. “We were told it has to be done,” he said. “Federal money is coming in and we’ve got to do it.” Bid requests brought in one offer — $90 million and a five-year completion date. The bid was $60 million more than was budgeted and the DOTD rejected the proposal.
“About nine months ago, it (bridge project discussion) started percolating again,” said Kleckley. He said local casino owners expressed alarm. With as much as 80 percent of their business traveling from Texas, it was estimated that L’Auberge and the Golden Nugget would lose about 30 percent of their business.
“If you squeeze those four lanes to two lanes, after a while, those people from Texas are going to get tired of fighting the traffic,” said Kleckley. “They’re going to start going to Coushatta — which pays no sales tax — or they’re going to stay in Houston.” Kleckley said a casino owner told him, “after three years, people develop new habits. They find new ways to entertain themselves.”
That translates into a substantial loss in sales tax revenue. “Those two casinos combined generate about $60 million a month in gaming revenues,” said Kleckley. The state takes 21 percent of that, or about $144 million annually. “That’s only state money,” he said. “That’s not even talking about local or parish sales tax.”
To make their case to the state, the casinos joined forces with the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, the Lake Area Industrial Alliance, and the Chamber SWLA and hired local economist Dr. Michael Kurth to do an economic impact study. The study is scheduled for release next week.
Kleckley said that casinos aren’t the only businesses that will feel a pinch.
“We haven’t talked about what the bridge project is going to do to West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital,” said Kleckley. He said the people who rely on Medicaid and generally drive to Memorial Hospital clinics will begin to visit WCCH instead. “They’re going to put pressure on the hospital,” he said.
The construction will also affect businesses up and down the I-210 corridor.
According to Kleckley, many people in south Lake Charles regularly drive to Sulphur to shop. “My wife and I will come to Lowes in Sulphur because it’s actually quicker than driving across Lake Charles,” he said.
These are the concerns Kleckley wants legislators to consider when moving forward with the re-decking.
“We hope, with what this impact study is going to say, it will give the state enough information to know that they’ve got to take this project very seriously, and they’ve got to shorten that (construction) time down to three years,” he said.”And with the leadership we’re seeing, I think we’ll see that happen.”