ST. CHARLES PARISH, La. -- An infrastructure project beset by major cost overruns is coming to an end with a final change-of-plans that cost an extra half a million dollars and left some officials shaking their heads.
Crews are finishing restoration of a median on Interstate 310, just to the north side of the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge in St. Charles Parish. It’s the last bit of work to improve and repair the bridge, which began eight years ago.
There have been some surprises along the way. First, fixing the diagonal cables that hold up the bridge span took three years instead of the planned one-and-a-half years, as design problems turned a $30 million project into a $50 million one.
And after taking a break for three years, the state spent another $25 million resurfacing the bridge deck and making other roadway improvements on Interstate 310.
The last change to the contract added $455,000 to remove a crossover on the north side of the bridge that the state had just built in 2015 at a cost of more than $700,000, intending for it to be permanent.
Chris Morvant, the district administrator for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said he made the decision to get rid of the crossover for safety reasons after it had already been used for a year to shift traffic and keep the bridge open in both directions while the deck repairs were done.
The crossover was placed on a curve in the highway and where the median slopes 6 feet. Morvant said the project designers didn’t say that a permanent crossover there would require guardrail to protect motorists from going into the ditch.
“The way I see it, it was very cut and dried because it was a safety issue,” Morvant said. “Putting guard rail 4 feet from the travel lane, taking away an area where motorists could pull over in case of an emergency – it was clear cut to restore the median back to its original condition.”
Rather than install guardrail at an extra cost of $200,000, Morvant said it would be better to spend $455,000 to remove the crossover altogether.
“I didn’t get any compelling arguments from anyone that could overcome the safety factor for me,” he said.
But state records indicate DOTD will be spending money in the future anyway, to install a cable barrier along the median there. And state emails and interviews indicate there were plenty of arguments made to Morvant to keep the crossover in place.
St. Charles Parish emergency director Joe Ganote asked the DOTD to keep crossovers on the Luling and Destrehan sides of the Mississippi River, writing in an email last June that having both crossovers would help first-responders with “improved response times, especially in a time of major crisis.”
DOTD agreed to keep the south-side crossover near Luling for first-responders to use, but by removing the matching roadway to cross the median on the north side, there’s no longer an option to shift two-way traffic to one side of the divided bridge. The highway is elevated through a cypress swamp for miles beyond the north-side crossover and it’s 2 miles to the next exit.
The lead project engineer for DOTD, Alan Weber, also wrote an email last June urging the department higher-ups not to change the original contract.
“As the Project Engineer, I am strongly opposed to changing the original contract,” Weber wrote. “Not wanting the guardrail is not a good reason to do a massive change order when we are ready to move traffic starting tomorrow night. Any change will delay the return to regular traffic flow. This will be a fatal mistake.”
Weber wrote that the local emergency agencies needed the crossover, but St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said his position on that changed over time.
“Our position … was that we saw no harm in the crossovers being left in place but we were not insistent on it,” Champagne said. “As the project was completed, it became obvious to myself and others that leaving the north crossover as is was a less than ideal situation as far as traffic safety was concerned.”
A member of the state’s construction team, speaking to WWL-TV on condition of anonymity, said the decision is symptomatic of larger wasteful spending at DOTD. For example, he said the state had already paid to change the drainage on the Destrehan side of the river so they could leave the crossover permanently in place.
He said Morvant, most of whose experience is as a traffic engineer, was being short-sighted.
“The traffic people who have no construction experience get all the higher jobs,” he said. “So traffic people are making construction decisions.”