Infrastructure project to address leaky Belle Chasse tunnel, unreliable bridge

BELLE CHASSE, LA (WVUE) - The Belle Chasse tunnel leaks so much, and has for so long, that residents joke about it.

"We call it the Belle Chasse car wash," Plaquemines Parish resident Ernest Calcagno said.

"Sometimes I pray as I go through it because it drips so bad. I'm afraid it's just going to cave in on me," resident Peggy Gatti said.

But the obvious need for repairs is no laughing matter. Out of the six cross-sections inside the tunnel, four have constant leaks, and the crumbling infrastructure is blamed for causing crashes.

"Problem is is that the inside of the tunnel is always wet, and if you don't watch out, you have an accident because you will slide into somebody or somebody will slide into you. It happened to my daughter," Calcagno said.

The LA 23 Judge Perez Bridge that accommodates traffic in the opposite direction over the Intracoastal Canal in Belle Chasse has constant issues of its own. On Friday, the bridge was shut down due to the draw bridge malfunctioning.

"The bridge was broken so I sat in traffic for about 10 minutes. And then you had to U-turn, and they made everybody go down Woodland instead," Gatti said. "(It happens) maybe once a month, which is too often."

The State Department of Transportation's proposed project may include a new mid-level, fixed-span bridge to replace the existing moveable bridge and tunnel. The bridge would accommodate both directions of traffic and would be tall enough to allow large vessels to travel underneath.

However, funding for the project is needed.

"Right now, the state is experiencing lack of revenue. The parish doesn't have any money to contribute," Plaquemines Parish President Amos Cormier III said.

The DOTD has applied for a federal grant worth $50-60 million to fund the bridge project. But the bridge will cost $100 million to complete, according to Cormier.

To fund the bridge's construction, DOTD is soliciting contractors to enter into public-private partnerships, something the agency has never done before.

"There has been an outcry from the public for long overdue projects like this, and we are working to find innovative means to deliver," Secretary Shawn Wilson, stated through a press release. "This project, as well as others, would have been funded under the gas tax proposal that the Legislature did not pass last year. Recognizing that not moving forward is unacceptable, innovative funding mechanisms such as public-private partnerships using tolls as match and federal discretionary funding opportunities will play a role in our future development."

Placing a toll on drivers is not a welcome idea for those who commute through the area.

"They always put tolls on the West Bank. It's not right. We pay taxes. It should cover it," Calcagno said.

"I requested that all financing options be looked at, because naturally the residents of Plaquemines would prefer the costs of the toll not be solely borne by them," Cormier said.

Cormier said he would like lawmakers to find the additional money needed through Capital Outlay or to increase the toll that shipping vessels pay for the bridge, since the Intracoastal Canal was initially dug for shipping commerce.

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