Road closures could cause problems for U.S. economy
The two-lane stretch of La. 1 that cuts through the marshes of southern Lafourche Parish is the only road to Port Fourchon, an isolated hub of oil and gas activity that services 90 percent of all deepwater operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
When the road is closed because of hurricanes and high water, as it was for three days during Hurricane Isaac last month, the economic losses for the oil and gas industry mount by the hour.
And each new storm brings the fear that when the water recedes, it might take the highway with it.
“We were just lucky this time that the entire road didn’t get washed out,” said Henri Boulet, executive director of the LA 1 Coalition, a collection of government and industry groups that advocates elevating the highway out of harm’s way.
The southern leg of La. 1 from Leeville to Port Fourchon was raised in work completed last year.
But the 7 miles of La. 1 from where levee protection ends in Golden Meadow south to Leeville remains at ground level.
The surge of water that Hurricane Isaac pushed into the marshes covered portions of the nonelevated section of La. 1 with 3 feet of water, and the road was shut down for 78 hours, said Port of Fourchon Director Chett Chiasson.
The surge also washed out some sections of the road’s shoulder, Boulet said.
He said the section to Port Fourchon was fortunate to escape the damage seen on the section of La. 1 that continues east from Port Fourchon to Grand Isle where Isaac’s surge scoured away a few large chunks of roadway.
By contrast, the recently completed elevated portion of La. 1 remained well above the surge, Chiasson said.
“We saw in this storm how valuable the elevated bridge and highway is,” Chiasson said. “… This new elevated highway helped us get back a lot quicker.”
He said the speed of recovery is critical because every day the port is down, some $27 million worth of business is on the line for the oil and gas service industry and about $32,000 in sales taxes for local government.
When ramping operations back up after a hurricane, “every hour is better for us,” Chiasson said.
Boulet said the lack of access to Port Fourchon from an extended closure of the road could have national impacts, pushing up gas prices and even denting the national economy.
A study last year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security concluded that a 90-day closure of Port Fourchon could reduce the national gross domestic product by up to $7.8 billion.
La. 1 is critical for the port because the activities there depend on supplies, labor and equipment that are transported by a steady stream of tractor-trailers every day, Boulet said.
While the downtime during Isaac was limited, advocates for elevating the remainder of La. 1 south of Golden Meadow say the potential for more severe flooding and major damage along the road grows worse each year.
One issue is coastal erosion.
As more of the marsh in southern Lafourche washes away, La. 1 is exposed to more open water lapping away at the road, Boulet said.
A related threat is sinking land and rising sea levels, a problem occurring across the coast.
Measurements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that land along La. 1 south of Golden Meadow has sunk about one foot over the past 20 years, said Tim Osborn, who is with NOAA.
NOAA estimates that within 15 years, the combination of sinking land and rising seas will leave the non-elevated portion of La. 1 between Golden Meadow and Leeville susceptible to flooding an estimated 31 times a year from normal tidal action, not counting storms.
“You’re going to have hundreds of 18-wheelers backed up,” Boulet said.
Osborn said routine flooding of the road is expected to become more severe as the century progresses.
There is only one obstacle in addressing the issue — money.
The recent work to build a new bridge at Leeville and to elevate the stretch of La. 1 from Leeville to Port Fourchon cost about $370 million, money that was pulled together through a variety of state and federal programs.
About a third of the cost was funded by loans and bonds to be repaid with a toll now collected on the highway.
It would cost another $320 million to elevate La. 1 from Golden Meadow to Leeville, but toll revenue is pledged for past debts, and prospects of state funding are dim, Boulet said.
“We’ve maximized the local community’s ability to generate more money for this project,” he said.
Boulet said the state has begun design work for the next phase, and there is the possibility of dividing the project into three smaller segments and progressing as money is secured.
The most immediate hope for funding is to carve out a share of the billions of dollars in fines from the BP oil disaster in 2010 that will be divvied up among Gulf states for coastal restoration and infrastructure projects, he said.
In the long term, Boulet said, La. 1 advocates are also eyeing the increasing share of offshore oil and gas royalties that the federal government will share with several Gulf Coast states under a 2006 federal law that is being gradually implemented.
For now, the prospects for funding are uncertain.
“Both time and tide are not on our side,” he said.