By T. Scott Boatright
The Interstate-20 corridor on the western end of Ruston has received much attention in recent weeks with the announcement of a Buc-ee’s Travel Center to be built off the Tarbutton Road overpass.
And that attention has generated an increasingly-asked question from motorists who have to drive in that area – when will the Tech Drive/Cooktown Road overpass be repaired or even replaced with a new one as has been in the planning stages for more than a decade now?
The answer to that could come in November, city officials are hoping. That overpass is maintained by the Louisiana Department of Transportation (DOTD). A project to build a new overpass was at one point slated to go to bid in May before being pushed back to November.
Plans for that project includes multiple roundabouts to improve congestion, traffic flow and safety, and a new widened bridge on LA 544 over I-20 at an approximate cost of $17 million.
“I came here (into office) eight years ago,” said Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker. “I still have a big piece of concrete that fell out of the overpass then. It’s like baked clay … like a ceramic in that it’s very light. I asked the engineers in Baton Rouge a year or year-and-a-half ago if they could please put a one-inch skim of asphalt on that bridge.”
But that bridge over I-20 is the original one built in the late 1950s at a point in time where not nearly as much traffic traveled across it daily as opposed to now. And what might seem like a simple fix to some apparently isn’t structurally feasible.
“Their exact words were, ‘We don’t believe the bridge could hold that much weight,’” Walker said about the DOTD’s response to his request to asphalt the bridge. “They’re not saying that trucks weigh that much more, but that (asphalt) weight plus the trucks or cars would be too much.”
City of Ruston Construction Projects Supervisor John Freeman said that the problem lies in the fact that over decades, traffic and usage has outgrown what the original structure was designed to provide.
“Adding even a light layer of asphalt adds weight and from what I’ve gleaned from the DOTD over the years, they don’t believe the original structure can take that additional weight,” Freeman said. “It probably wasn’t designed to last as long as it has and to handle the increased traffic it’s seen over the years.”
Walker said he’s pushed for the upgrade of the overpass since he took office.
“Eight years ago they told me it would take eight years of planning, and it’s taken that,” Walker said. “They told me roundabouts would have to go on each (side of the) bridge, so they had to study roundabouts to be able to show that’s the best in case that’s questioned by the public.
“They said that would take two years. So I asked, what else do you have to study? Their answer was for one, whether it would be a two-, three- or four-lane overpass. Looking at it, I think it’s obvious it will have to be four lanes at least. They said that’s true, but they still had to do a study – another two-year study. And they have to complete one study before doing another. It’s already taken eight years.”
Walker said that another factor to keep in mind is that the Cooktown Road overpass and the US 167 overpass in Ruston are the two oldest Interstate 20 overpass bridges from the East Coast to Fort Worth, Texas, where it (I-20) ends.
Walker said the reason those two overpasses are some of the oldest along I-20 is because Ruston-based T.J.James Co. built most of that interstate.
“T.J. started working on the I-20 project in 1958, and they started here because this is where they’re based,” Walker said. “And when we ask the federal government for help with those two overpasses, safety doesn’t come into it. Safety has nothing to do with it for them.”
While the most-recent Tarbutton Overpass was built section-by-section over I-20, Walker said plans for a new Cooktown Road overpass are different.
“They’re hoping to do a roll-on bridge like they did in Calhoun and Simsboro, where they built the bridge offsite and rolled it into place,” Walker said. “They’re going to move the new overpass 100-feet west of the old one. And they’re going to have two roundabouts on the north side, one to service the exit and one to service the Service Road (Woodard Avenue) and shopping center and all of that.
“On the south side, which is worse because of Temple (Baptist Church), they have one that will service the entrance and exits to the interstate. They will not address that Service Road at all, because of cost.”
City of Ruston Public Works Manager Andrew Halbrook said that if the DOTD sends out the project for bid in November, then construction on a new overpass could potentially begin by the summer of 2024.
“I think plans for the project are set for around 1,200 calendar days from start to finish,” Halbrook said. “But that’s a ballpark figure because in honesty I don’t remember the exact number.
“There’s a lot of staging elements that have to be in place before anything substantial can be started and would become visible to nearby drivers. So we just have to be patient while remaining hopeful it will be started and completed as fast as possible.”