25 August 2008

Defunct Interstate Highways of Louisiana

Interstate 310: Riverfront Expressway, New Orleans

The first proposed Interstate 310 (not the current I-310, though in a way they are related; see the I-410 Dixie Freeway article below) is by far Louisiana’s most infamous and controversial cancelled freeway route.

A major transportation study was completed in 1946 for the city of New Orleans by famed New York planner Robert Moses. This plan would prove to be the formative document for long-range transportation planning in the Crescent City, as virtually all its proposals would either come to fruition or remain in active planning for decades. The centerpiece of this plan was a three-pronged freeway system, centering on a new Mississippi River bridge (that later was completed as the Greater New Orleans Bridge). The Pontchartrain and Westbank Expressways, eventually constructed, constituted two prongs of this proposed system. The third prong was the fabled Riverfront Expressway, which would have traversed a riverbank route through the downtown area and the historic French Quarter and then proceeded north along Elysian Fields Avenue to a terminus at US 90/Gentilly Boulevard (later this was revised to the current I-10/Elysian Fields interchange). Provisions would have been made for future upriver extension along the Uptown waterfront to Jefferson Parish. The waterfront routing was intended to relieve truck and other freight traffic associated with the wharves from the crowded and narrow urban street grid.

The interchange where these three routes would have intersected, located at the base of the proposed river bridge, according to the plan renderings would have been an oddball spiral type interchange with double decking (due to the height of the bridge) which would have consumed a fair amount of land in the Warehouse District and likely would have rendered impossible the current location of the Morial Convention Center.

In any case, the proposed route remained on the state’s planning books for nearly twenty-five years, and had substantial support from the city’s downtown interests and business elite (as reflected by the longstanding support for the freeway by their longtime print media sock-puppet, the Times-Picayune). The river bridge and its freeway approaches were constructed first by the state, but active planning was ongoing during this time for the riverfront route, to the point where detailed engineering plans were drawn up. There were many engineering considerations that had to be taken into account, including the presence of parallel rail lines, the need to access riverfront wharves and the Canal Street ferry landing, and retaining the integrity of riverfront flood protection. Because of these elements, the route would have been elevated for the most part, with the exception of a short tunnel segment under the foot of Canal Street (which was actually built during the construction of the now-demolished Rivergate Exhibition Center, but was never used for highway traffic).

When the Interstate highway system was born, the riverfront freeway route was not incorporated into the proposed federally funded system, that designation following an inland route along Claiborne Avenue (the current I-10). However, efforts began almost immediately to incorporate the riverfront route into the Interstate system. In October 1964, this was finally achieved, by transferring allotted Louisiana Interstate mileage to New Orleans at the sacrifice of the proposed I-420 Monroe bypass (see below). The “310” designation was chosen as it connected to its parent Interstate only at the north end, rendering the highway a spur in the numbering scheme.

In this manner, a “downtown loop” of sorts came into being, with two sides being planned Interstate freeways (10 and 310) and the third side being the existing Pontchartrain Expressway. For the next two decades or so, New Orleans transportation planning was predicated on the existence of this downtown freeway loop.

As these things were occurring, substantial opposition to the highway project was developing among the more bohemian elements of the city – French Quarter residents, preservationists, and urban planners. All criticism focused on the proposed elevated highway’s deleterious effects on the historic Vieux CarrĂ© and the effect of the highway of cutting off that district’s historic and symbiotic connection with the river. (Lost in the noise and not mentioned was the fact that the existing riverfront wharves had already pretty much accomplished the same effect.) To note, the area riverward of Decatur Street falls outside the purview of the Vieux CarrĂ© Commission, which has been largely responsible since the 1930s for preserving the French Quarter’s historical aesthetic integrity. Renderings were produced which showed the negative visual and aesthetic effect on the waterfront, and particularly Jackson Square, that the highway would produce when viewed from the river.

Attempts at compromise occurred throughout the sixties, as proposed plans for the freeway were submitted by various parties to downplay or eliminate those design elements considered most offensive by the freeway’s opponents. One proposal would have mostly buried the freeway underground, covering the highway with park space and high-rise development. Other proposals would have placed the highway at grade, either in the vicinity of Jackson Square or throughout. These were rejected due to the engineering impossibilities of constructing an at-grade or below-grade facility at that location, with below-grade proposals producing fears that river flood protection would be compromised. In any case, preservationists were committed to protecting the French Quarter from encroachment by any freeways.

Eventually, the decision whether to build or not to build was made by federal officials, perhaps due to political pressure and the wide anti-highway sentiment present at that time as reflected in freeway revolts such as what had transpired with the Riverfront Expressway. In mid-1969, U.S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe announced that the Federal highway authorities had officially deleted the I-310 route from the Interstate Highway System and transferred the unbuilt Interstate mileage to the I-410 Dixie Freeway project at the request of U.S. Representative Hale Boggs. Though the freeway route remained on the state’s books for a few more years, lack of federal funding for such an expensive undertaking assured that the highway would never come to fruition.

The legacy of the stillborn freeway is apparent in small ways. The I-10/Elysian Fields interchange was obviously designed with a freeway-to-freeway connection in mind. The relatively poor connections that persisted for years between US 90B lakebound and I-10 eastbound, and vice versa, was also a legacy of sorts as it was presumed that most traffic traversing these movements would utilize I-310 instead. Direct connections in this regard were belatedly added with the Pontchartrain Expressway reconstruction in 1997.

It is safe to say that all the current riverfront development (Aquarium of the Americas, Moonwalk, Convention Center, Riverwalk Shopping Center, cruise ship port) would not exist, or would exist in severely altered fashion, if I-310 had been constructed as proposed. The 1984 World’s Fair would also have to have taken place in a different location, if it would have occurred at all. Needless to say, this would have probably produced a net negative to the city as the downtown riverfront is considered one of the city’s greatest assets, and the World’s Fair is widely regarded as the catalyst which instigated this riverfront redevelopment along with revitalization of the adjacent Warehouse District.

Interstate 410: Proposed Baton Rouge bypass

At the beginning of Louisiana Interstate time, planning maps showed a proposed northern bypass of Baton Rouge along the Airline Highway corridor, connecting to I-10 on each end. Though Airline Highway in the BR area has cloverleaf interchanges at virtually every major state highway intersection, with the exception of a short section in North BR it is by no means freeway quality.

These plans apparently evolved in seemingly random fashion. The original freeway in BR was what is now the section of I-110 between the “Governor’s Mansion curve” and Plank Road. This was apparently signed for some time as I-410, and this is reflected on official state highway maps of the very early 1960s. The plan, as of the early 1960s, was to create a loop-type interstate (no longer a true bypass) by using the current I-110 corridor to Airline Highway (US 190), turning west to cross the US 190 Miss. River bridge, and then back south along the LA 1 corridor to meet I-10 again at Port Allen.

Needless to say, the “loop” aspect of the plan was dropped at some point and proposed I-410 evolved into I-110, perhaps the only place in America where a loop Interstate evolved into a spur.

Certain aspects of the plan seem to remain in current highway infrastructure. The I-110/Airline Highway junction is a stack interchange, and this setup was apparently planned in I-410 days. Airline Highway between I-110 and the Scenic Highway interchange, a section which would have comprised part of I-410 per the 1960s plans, is freeway grade in character. The I-10/LA 1 interchange is likewise a complicated stack-like setup befitting a freeway to freeway junction more so than a freeway-to-arterial interchange. But then again, the interchange is partly intended by design to serve Port of BR traffic interests, so it makes sense in this regard…

The elimination of a limited access quality bypass in BR freeway planning left a gaping hole in the regional transportation network, which would come back to bite in full force over the years as the antiquated I-10 through-town route has grown increasingly congested and the suboptimal design aspects of this alignment have become glaringly apparent. It is only in recent years that bypass planning has returned to policymakers’ agenda, and a new loop project is finally in the planning stage, supported by a regional consortium of public officials and business interests. Perhaps I-410 will eventually see the light of day after all…

Interstate 410: Dixie Freeway (New Orleans bypass)

(This I-410 has absolutely no relation to the earlier Baton Rouge proposal, save the proposed highway designation.)

Out of the ashes of the aborted Riverfront Expressway proposal came the Dixie Freeway, a highway proposal which was less about genuine transportation need, and more to the point about its primary purposes to open land around the city of New Orleans for suburban development, and to provide two additional river crossings. (The Interstate mileage allotted for I-310 was transferred to the I-410 project, which entered the Interstate system at the same time that I-310 was cancelled.) The route as proposed would have constituted a wide three quarters bypass of the city to the west, south, and east which would have largely cut through uninhabitable wetland. Originating at a point on I-10 in St. Charles Parish, the route would have traversed south through that parish, crossing the river, then turning east to penetrate Jefferson Parish and provide a lateral route several miles south of the Westbank Expressway. At some point it would have again crossed the river and then traversed north through the Chalmette area, eventually assuming the Paris Road corridor into eastern New Orleans and returning to I-10 there.

Needless to say, the environmental impacts associated with this route proved unacceptable, and in 1977 it was largely cancelled, with its redacted mileage donated to then-unbuilt I-49 which was entered into the Interstate system at the same time. Not all of the proposed I-410 routing was erased, though; the only eliminated portion was the long middle segment, which largely traversed wetland areas that in every respect were very unfavorable for suburban development. The surviving portions on either end eventually were constructed and opened to traffic, as I-310 on the west end and I-510 on the east end. Unlike the original I-410 proposal, both of these routes are of at least some marginal utility to motorists.

Also, in a way, the Riverfront Expressway version of I-310 lives on in the current St. Charles Parish I-310, as the current Interstate is comprised of authorized mileage that was once allotted to the defunct I-310…

Interstate 420: Proposed Monroe bypass

Little is known about this long scuttled proposed bypass route for Monroe, as it existed well in the early history of Louisiana Interstate time, and was deleted at an early date from the Interstate system in favor of the I-310 Riverfront Expressway route in New Orleans (see that article for details). From what is known, it would have been a two lane facility (at least initially), would have been around 10.2 miles in length, and would have bypassed the city to the north.

Given the decrepit quality of the I-20 freeway through Monroe, a bypass route might not have been such a bad idea. This route would also have provided improved access to the northern part of the city, an area of nicer and more affluent neighborhoods where much of the city’s middle twentieth century growth occurred.

Then again, perhaps its non-existence is a good thing, considering the importance of the proposed numerical designation to recreational drug users….


A good part of the above information (namely for I-310, I-410 New Orleans, and I-420) was cribbed from the excellent Federal Highway Administration Highway History page on New Orleans Interstate history. Much more information can be found there. I have to give credit where it is due, even if it is at the hands of our almighty Federal Government, which otherwise seems to demonstrate incompetence at every other undertaking it pursues.

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