Single-lane interstate? Obama gets peek at what many Baton Rouge drivers see daily, vows to help

Riding in from the airport, President Barack Obama passed by the part of Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge that squeezes down to one lane and promised to help find the money to expand the section, Gov. John Bel Edwards told a gathering of businessmen on Thursday.

The bottleneck had to be pointed out to the president because the freeway was closed, and he didn’t run into any traffic during his overnight visit to Baton Rouge.

Edwards, who accompanied Obama from the airport, said he told the president it was the only place on the 2,460-mile highway interstate, which stretches from Santa Monica, California, to Jacksonville, Florida, with a single lane.

“He didn’t know that before, and had I not taken advantage of the opportunity, he wouldn’t have known it today,” Edwards told hundreds of businesspeople attending the annual luncheon for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

LABI is one of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups and has been wary of Edwards, often grading him low on its annual scorecard of legislation important to the group. Many of LABI’s top officers and members backed Edwards’ opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

Facing a $1.9 billion budget shortfall with few alternatives available, Edwards asked for the help of the business community and expressed his willingness to include the business community in the decision-making process.

“I am aware, not withstanding that sterling voting record I have with your organization, that our missions are similar,” Edwards said. “We all want a strong business climate that enhances communities.”

He addressed LABI about an hour after leaving Obama’s side.

At his town hall meeting at McKinley Senior High School, the president recalled seeing the one lane coming off the I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River, which routinely chokes traffic and causes daily headaches for travelers through Baton Rouge.

“We may need to do something about it to relieve some traffic,” Obama said, adding that traffic shouldn’t be a partisan issue because traffic problems apply to everyone regardless of party.

Edwards delivered a request for federal help during the drive in from the airport. East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden also accompanied Obama on the drive.

Edwards requested $100 million in federal funds to widen I-10 from I-49 in Lafayette to the Atchafalaya Basin. These federal funds would make up 60 percent of the cost. The federal funds would allow the state to use money currently set aside for the project on other projects, including an environmental study for a rail line connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans and to design an interchange off I-10 in Kenner to the Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Another $20 million would be used to relocate the Washington Street exit in Baton Rouge that many say would help alleviate traffic by adding another travel lane coming off the Mississippi River bridge on I-10.

Eastbound traffic leaving the bridge now includes an inside lane that forces traffic off at Washington Street. That means eastbound motorists, including operators of 18-wheelers, often make hasty moves from the Washington Street exit path to the outside lane, slowing or stopping other vehicles in adjacent lanes.

Obama’s staff told Edwards Thursday morning that the administration is “seriously and favorably considering a request” for $100 million to make that improvement, the governor told LABI.

The money would come from the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which would spend $305 billion on highway and transit projects through 2020, he said.

Louisiana has a $12 billion backlog of roads and bridges that need maintenance or improvements.

The governor is traveling to Washington, D.C., next week and will meet with Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Elizabeth Crisp and Will Sentell, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/

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