I-49 plans get renewed

Supporters of completing Interstate 49 from Lafayette to New Orleans are working to pull together a nonprofit coalition with a full-time executive director to help move the project forward.

“People have talked about I-49 for 30 years. It has moved and it has stopped, but mainly, it has stopped,” said State Sen. R.L. “Bret” Allain II, R-Franklin, who is part of the core group planning the new coalition.

Allain said two key factors in the renewed push to complete I-49 south will be soliciting more involvement from the industries that depend on the highway and hiring a full-time director to keep the effort focused and on track.

“One person dedicating their life to that is an absolute. It must happen,” Allain said.

Community leaders and economic development officials from throughout the region came together at organizational meeting for the coalition this month in Lafayette.

A more extensive planning meeting is scheduled for next month.

“We are serious about getting this going,” said Bruce Conque, with the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.

The work to upgrade U.S. 90 to interstate standards has progressed steadily in recent years with a series of projects to build new overpasses, frontage roads and other improvements.

But an estimated $5 billion in work remains for the two most expensive portions — the partially elevated stretch through Lafayette and the southern leg from Raceland into the New Orleans area.

Those would be among the largest transportation projects in recent state history, and I-49 supporters have had little success in identifying a funding source at a time when state and federal highway money is tight.

Several efforts have been pursued over the past decade to galvanize support for the project, including a third incarnation of an I-49 south “task force” that lost momentum soon after it launched in 2009 and a campaign to brand I-49 as “America’s Energy Corridor” in the hopes of attracting more attention.

St. Mary Parish Director of Economic Development Frank Fink said the new plans for the I-49 coalition differ from past efforts in that there is a greater emphasis on bringing the entire region from Lafayette to New Orleans on board and in actively involving business leaders.

“It’s really come to the point where it is essential, and pulling together as a team will get it done,” Fink said. “I think this is a fresh start.”

Allain said the coalition will be modeled after the LA 1 Coalition, made up of government and industry groups, that has been working since the 1990s for improvements on La. 1 in south Louisiana.

“They were organized and they had a full time guy whose whole life was dedicated to the project,” Allain said

The group counts among its successes a $371 million project in Lafourche Parish to elevate La. 1 from Leeville to Port Fourchon and build a new bridge in Leeville.

The work was done to spare the road the frequent flooding that would block access to and from Port Fourchon, an isolated coastal facility that services the deepwater oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

The money for the project was pulled together from a variety of state and federal programs and depends on toll revenue for part of the financing, though some state officials have recently questioned whether tolls are producing enough money to repay the debt.

State transportation officials said Friday that they are trying to get a $174 million loan from the federal government to help pay for the bridge. Without the loan or other action, they said, tolls would have to more than double to pay borrowing costs for the project.

LA 1 Coalition Director Henri Boulet cautioned that even with a strong coalition, finding the money to complete I-49 south will be no easy task, considering that it will compete with projects nationwide for a limited pot of federal money.

“From this point on out, it is always going to be competitive. The nation has put off infrastructure improvements for many years, and it is finally catching up,” Boulet said.

He said the use of tolls to pay for the road will have to be part of discussion.

Supporters of completing I-49 have proposed tolls as an option, and the state Department of Transportation and Development is now studying the feasibility of using tolls to help pay for the interstate project.

DOTD officials have also said they are studying existing plans for I-49 south to determine if the $5 billion price tag can be trimmed.

Allain said he is optimistic despite the obstacles.

“We have a great opportunity to get some movement in the right direction,” he said.