LAKE CHARLES, La. (KPLC) - The Calcasieu River Bridge. Tens of thousands of people use it every day, but many say the aging bridge has seen better days.
"We have, essentially, bridges that have last century's technology carrying the traffic of today,” says local historian Adley Cormier. He says to combat the growing traffic problems, the I-10 bridge we use today was built and completed in the 1950's.
“The story begins at the turn of the last century,” Cormier says. “Crossing the Calcasieu has always been a problem. It was made a little bit simpler when the routing for the new transcontinental road, which would become Highway 90 or the Old Spanish Trail, was actually designated. In Lake Charles, the highway was going to come down Broad Street and then take a left on what was then Front Street, go down what was then Shell Beach Drive and then cross the bridge there.”
He says a bridge was constructed in 1916 that crossed the Calcasieu River.
“That’s the old bridge,” Cormier says. “The one that is out by the Port of Lake Charles. You can still see the remnants of it from the Westlake side. That bridge served us for a while, but the volume of traffic was such that when Highway 90 was upgraded in the 30′s that a new bridge was planned.”
He says the new bridge was designed in the 1940′s and built in the 50′s.
“That’s the pistol bridge that we have today,” Cormier says. “It was designed to carry Highway 90 traffic over the Calcasieu River and the old bridge that had been built in 1916 was essentially torn down, blown apart, to allow for navigation. Since then we have been stuck with the bridge that first opened in the 50′s. When Interstate 10 routing was being established they decided to grandfather that bridge into the routing because in Lake Charles, because of our very unique geography, the bridge can really only go one place. They routed I-10 through a living working neighborhood. That’s why there is a slash through Lake Charles about three blocks south of the railroad track that carries I-10. At the time that I-10 bridge was grandfathered in, they promised us a new bridge. That was back in the 50′s. So it ended up that the promised was kept when they opened up the 210 bridge, which actually, for all intents and purposes is 60 years old really."
In 2019, DOTD began a year-long multi-million dollar project to repair the 210 bridge. One of the goals was to ensure the 210 bridge could handle detouring traffic if and when the I-10 bridge went under construction. DOTD completed the 210 project last December.
During that time, with growing discontent from years of no progress towards a new bridge, locals began to get involved in the process.
"The Chamber Southwest was realizing that the effort to build a new bridge had lagged for about twenty years, so about two years ago, the Chamber appointed a very talented Task Force to look into all the ways to build a new bridge,” says George Swift, Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance president and CEO.
The Build Our Bridge Task Force was created in 2018, comprised of several local business leaders who would look into ways to get a new I-10 bridge faster.
Swift says after a year of studying the bridge and looking into financing possibilities, the plans were shown to the public, with the possibility of a toll bridge.
Soon after, politicians began voicing their concerns with the bridge.
“We know the replacement of the I-10 bridge is incredibly important to SWLA,” Senator Ronnie Johns. “It's not about is it going to happen, now it's a matter of when it's going to happen."
Even President Donald Trump, when visiting Southwest Louisiana in May 2019, announced if re-elected, “We are going to give you a new I-10 bridge.”
In August 2019, Governor John Bell Edwards committed $85 million in the 2020 Capital Outlay Bill towards the bridge.
But what’s the latest on the progress of getting a new I-10 bridge?
“We are trying to understand on the funding portion of it what is the level of contribution we will receive from the federal government,” says Keith DuRousseau, Build Our Bridge Task Force chairman. “Some of the timelines we have discussed say 2024. We are hoping that is not reality. We are hoping we can advance that at least two years to 2022."
We reached out to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development several times for this story. None of our questions regarding a new bridge were answered.
"DOTD was set to release the preferred alternative in the last quarter of 2019, which is a critical component to what we hear a lot about the permit,” DuRousseau said. “We are excited and are awaiting for that preferred alternative and that will also help the state and federal legislators understand the magnitude and costs surrounding the project."
Swift says to get a new bridge, it is going to take cooperation from local, state, and federal levels. Something he says happens sooner, rather than later.
“We have our federal delegation working on this, we have the Governor and the State Department of Transportation working on it and now of course with some new legislators,” Swift said. “We want to keep the effort in front of the public because we all realize we need a new bridge. For safety reasons, for evacuation reasons, for commerce reasons, it is probably one of the most important infrastructure objects along the I-10 corridor from California to Florida. So what we are trying to do is keep the pressure on."
Officials with a firm hired by DOTD state a new Calcasieu River Bridge could not break ground sooner than 2024. Officials estimate a new bridge will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The funding mechanism, including the possibility of a toll, has yet to be ironed out.