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$45M Grant to Fund NOLA Bridge-Tunnel Replacement

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

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The replacement of a 60-year-old bridge-and-tunnel near New Orleans is a step closer to reality as the U.S. Department of Transportation has committed $45 million in funding for a new bridge to supplant the Belle Chasse Tunnel and the adjacent Judge Perez Bridge, in Plaquemines Parish.

The support comes in the form of an Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, grant, part of a program that replaced the Fastlane grant program last year. Fastlane was authorized to award $4.5 billion in transportation funding between 2016 and 2020.

Judge Perez Bridge
Steve Morgan, CC 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Judge Perez Bridge, a vertical lift bridge over the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, will be replaced along with the Belle Chasse Tunnel in an approximately $122 million project. 

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development says the project, estimated at $120 million, will be further bankrolled by $40 million in state funds and proposed tolls. The prioject is currently under procurement for a public-private partnership, with six companies having reportedly expressed interest in being the private partner via a design-build-finance-operate-maintain model; the DOTD has not released the names of the firms.

"While tolling is not my first choice to addressing our infrastructure woes, it is certainly a tool at our disposal that we should consider," said Gov. John Bel Edwards. "My administration’s position embraces a philosophy of establishing the lowest possible toll for the shortest possible time frame such that the private sector can help meet our infrastructure needs while creating jobs.” 

Bel Edwards added that he plans to continue working closely with the federal government to address the state's infrastructure needs. 

The DOTD says the Belle Chasse project, along with the Loyola Interchange project and Barksdale Air Force Base access project, represents the state's first foray into using the design-build P3 model. 

“I’m pleased with the response we have received as we move forward with our public-private partnership,” said DOTD Secretary Shawn D. Wilson. “This project is as critical as the capacity we are building using this procurement method. To have all the funding pieces falling in place is a testament to Gov. Edwards, the Legislature, Plaquemines Parish, DOTD employees and others who know the importance of upgrading our aging infrastructure.” 

Bridge and Tunnel History

The Belle Chasse Tunnel was opened in 1956, with the Perez Bridge opening 12 years later. Both carry Louisiana Highway 23 over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, with the tunnel carrying southbound traffic and the bridge conveying northbound traffic. The bridge is a vertical lift, to accommodate boat traffic on the waterway.

The tunnel was built instead of a bridge in order to minimize the interruptions to traffic flow that would come with a lift bridge, which would be necessary for navigational clearance. But a decade later, the tunnel was overwhelmed with traffic and the Perez Bridge was built to ease congestion.

Belle Chasse Tunnel
Dr. Warner, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 60-year-old Belle Chasse Tunnel has deteriorated to the point where U.S. Sen. John Kennedy referred to it as "basically a car wash."

Both have experienced deterioration over the decades; U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said in a statement, “The Belle Chasse Bridge and Tunnel are in poor condition. The tunnel leaks so much that it’s basically a car wash, and the bridge isn’t much better. Replacing and updating these structures will be a relief to drivers in Plaquemines Parish.”

The two structures have grown costly to maintain, DOTD says, and replacing them is “overdue and inevitable.” The plan is to replace the tunnel and bridge with one new four-lane bridge, the design of which has not been finalized, as it will be part of the P3 contract.

Hurricane Evacuation Route

Replacing the structures with a new bridge will help to ease congestion, the agency says, providing easier access to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, just south of the bridge, and creating a more reliable means of evacuation in the event of a hurricane.

The tunnel was flooded during Hurricane Katrina when the eyewall of the storm his Belle Chasse directly. Discussions about replacing the tunnel-and-bridge began soon after as the area rebuilt.

Editor's note: This article was updated June 12 to clarify the most recent cost estimate for the project and to add comment from the DOTD.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Construction; Public-private partnerships (P3); Roads/Highways

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