Interstate 10, and New Orleans’ love-hate relationship with it, turns 60
In late 1957 just outside Pearl River in St. Tammany Parish, road crews turned the first spade of dirt on what would become Louisiana’s 686-mile share of the planned 41,000-mile federal interstate highway system linking the country’s major cities. At the time, the Louisiana work was hailed as the biggest construction project in the history of the state, and the overall federal project the biggest in the world. “The entire system will be free of all traffic obstructions — no traffic signals, no stop signs, no left turns, no cross-movement of traffic except in over-and-under style,” gushed a 1962 write-up in The Times-Picayune. “You will be able to drive from New Orleans to New York without ever seeing a red light.”
As with every community it touches, Interstate 10 permanently transformed the geography of New Orleans, for better and for worse. The Louisiana stretch of I-10 — cutting a 274.42-mile path from Lake Charles through Slidell — was complete by 1978, but that hasn’t kept engineers from tweaking it by widening lanes and adding offshoots to absorb continually increasing levels of traffic. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, traffic seems to rush to fill lanes as soon as they are complete.
- The interstate-highway network was championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been impressed by the German Autobahn when he was commanding Allied forces in Europe during World War II. He envisioned the system as a way to transport supplies and troops in an emergency or invasion.
- In the mid-1960s, a proposal was made to split off a freeway from I-10 that would run south along Elysian Fields Avenue to the Mississippi River, then run along the riverfront to connect with the bridge over the river. Opposition to this plan was so intense that it never was built.
- While the riverfront expressway was scrapped over concerns it would have on the historic quality of the French Quarter, plans for a segment running along North Claiborne Avenue proceeded as planned. As a result, the thoroughfare, which had been an important part of Treme, lost its allée of live oaks, and residents said the spirit of the neighborhood was shattered.
- The only remnant of the Riverfront Expressway project is a tunnel built below what is now Harrah’s Casino. It is used for valet parking. In 2015, a part of it caved in beneath Canal Street, prompting months of emergency work.
- Pile drivers working a section of I-10 can be seen and heard during the cemetery segment of the 1969 movie “Easy Rider.”
For all of its shortcomings — traffic jams, noise, endless construction — I-10 has become an important component of life in the New Orleans area, enabling expansion to suburbs west and east of the city. It has cut the time of the drive to Baton Rouge and beyond, and in emergencies — most notably hurricanes — the lanes can be reversed in a process called contraflow that makes every lane an outbound one.