New Watson-Central bridge proposal draws mixed reactions

New Watson-Central bridge proposal draws mixed reactions
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POSTED: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - 4:00am

UPDATED: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - 4:04am

Watson residents have a chance to learn more about the state's plan to further link their town to Central. Odds are, their reactions will be different than that of their neighbors to the west.

DOTD will host an open house-style meeting at 6:00 p.m. tonight at Live Oak High School about possible routes for a connection between Hooper Road in Central and LA 16 in Watson.

Another meeting was held Tuesday night in Central to inform Central residents about the options for the road and the status of the project.

"It's one of the key things we have to guage public interest, preference among the alternatives," Bruce Richards said. Richards is the Director of Planning for N-Y Associates, the firm in charge of the environmental impact assessment of the project.

"We also find out a lot of information that we may not find otherwise, through other sources, from talking to people who are in the public," he added.

The Louisiana Legislature first proposed building a new bridge over the Amite River in 1997. DOTD began studying the idea in 2000. Both Central and Watson have grown significantly since then, so Richards said the need for this project is even greater than it was originally.

"In addition to political support, there's a lot of citizen support for this," he claimed. "With continued growth in the area, we think that this will provide a new route for people to take from the outlying areas into Baton Rouge proper."

Most of that citizen support comes from Watson residents who commute daily to Baton Rouge. Their choices currently include the Magnolia Bridge and LA 16. Having a third route would reduce travel times for them, but would necessarily increase congestion in Central.

"This isn't our traffic," said Dave Freneaux, a Central resident and founder of the Central Speaks newspaper. "Without any bridges over the Amite, Central doesn't have traffic."

As a businessman, Freneaux also sees value in each additional car that passes through his city.

"We've got a fine line to balance between how many cars you're going to bring through Central, where that brings a positive economic impact on Central, and where that actually hurts our quality of life," he noted.

"I want Central to be the type of place that we've all grown up (in) and love, and I don't want to have to fight traffic to get to the drug store," Freneaux said, struggling to prioritize the economic health of the city with its small-town appeal. "Now, by the same token, I want to have the drug store, to get my medicines, and I want to keep our tax dollars in Central, to fund our schools and our infrastructure."

Since his two desires for Central contradict themselves, Freneaux chose instead to look forward.

"I guess we're at a point where it doesn't really matter whether we're for or against (the project)," he said. "It's a matter of how we manage what happens once it gets here."

While the project is likely to take place, do not look for bulldozers in the area any time soon.

"Different steps have to be done," Richards noted. "Our schedule is to complete this environmental assessment process before the end of the year. At that standpoint, you'll have environmental clearance, a finding of no significant impact, or a FONSI for short, as we call it. With the environmental clearance, that will allow further work to go on: land acquisition, design engineering, and eventually purchase of property and actual construction."

The biggest obstacle in the way of extending Hooper Road and building the bridge will be paying for it. Thus far, there is no dedicated source of money for the project.

"Key thing is funding, though," Richards said. "It has to have funding to make this project work."

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