South Louisiana coalition looks to move the ‘I-49 needle’

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Traffic rolls along I-49 north of Louisiana Avenue Wednesday in Lafayette. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Traffic rolls along I-49 north of Louisiana Avenue Wednesday in Lafayette.

It’s been 15 years since the “Future I-49” signs went up along U.S. 90 through Lafayette, and in some respects, the road project seems as distant as ever.

Several improvements in recent years have brought parts of U.S. 90 up to interstate standards along the 160 miles between Lafayette and New Orleans — lane expansions, frontage roads, overpasses, new interchanges.

But at least $2 billion in work remains for big-ticket sections that include the elevated stretch planned through Lafayette, and the political momentum to seek out that funding has waxed and waned over the years.

“There have been a number of task forces and groups that have tried to move the I-49 needle,” said former state Sen. Mike Michot, who now works in governmental affairs with The Picard Group and has recently been helping guide the newly formed I-49 South Coalition.

State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, began working last year to form the coalition, which includes politicians, business owners and economic development officials.

Michot said the goal is to pull together a group with strong representation from the business community that can maintain the focus needed to see the project through.

“It takes some of the political ups and downs out of it,” Michot said. “... We want the business community to get behind it and keep the momentum.”

The momentum, for know, appears to be as strong as ever.

A meeting last week the coalition helped organize in Lafayette attracted more than 70 business and community leaders from along the U.S. 90 corridor in south Louisiana.

They didn’t discover any secret pot of money to make the project happen, but did receive some welcome news from the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The current estimate f or completing I-49 South is about $5 billion, but DOTD recently completed a study that indicates that price could possibly be cut by half.

Much of the savings would come from not elevating as much of the interstate as originally planned on the 36-mile stretch through Lafourche, St. Charles and Jefferson parishes.

However, diverting from that plan requires federal approval.

Even if the cost reductions can be realized, three critical stretches of the proposed interstate would still come with steep price tags — $1.3 billion for the 36 miles at the southern end near New Orleans; $250 million for an 11-mile section in St. Mary Parish between the Wax Lake Outlet and Berwick; and $750 million for the elevated section through Lafayette.

Those are major projects by any standard for Louisiana, especially for this region.

For example, the $750 million price tag for the section through Lafayette is more than 10 times the $60 million spent to complete the 6-mile, four-lane stretch of Ambassador Caffery South, one the biggest road projects here in recent history.

DOTD Deputy Secretary Eric Kalivoda said at last week’s meeting that those big interstate projects will be more doable if broken down into smaller, less expensive sections that can be tackled one at a time.

“We want to break it into as many usable pieces as we can,” he said. “They are much easier to fund if you can do that.”

But a lot of money would still be needed, and neither the state nor federal government has been flush with highway dollars in recent years.

Tolls have been considered as one possibility to help complete the interstate, and DOTD is also line for a few hundred million dollars more annually in the coming years thanks to legislation in 2008 that directs vehicle sales tax revenue to transportation projects.

That money has been held back because of a provision that the revenue will not go to DOTD if the state budget does not meet certain benchmarks, but the money is expected to begin flowing before 2020.

Michot said another possible boost in funding could come from rethinking the state’s gasoline tax.

Louisiana’s share of the gasoline tax is set 20 cents per gallon, but Michot said setting the tax at a percentage of the cost of gasoline, rather than a set amount per gallon, would allow revenue to keep pace with inflation.

Legislative approval would be needed for any change in the gasoline tax.

Supporters of I-49 South have also looked to the federal government for help, but Michot said there is little hope of finding any there in the near future.

“The bigger budget problems are clouding everything now,” he said.

The federal government last month gave notice that a small portion of U.S. 90 through Lafayette might be designated as part of the nation’s “Primary Freight Network” — a distinction that could bring the federal government’s share of funding for improvements up to 95 percent.

“Right now, with no money available to be allocated for it, it is just a designation,” said Kam Movassaghi, a former DOTD secretary who has remained an active supporter of I-49 South.

Regardless of the funding challenges, Michot said, one major change is encouraging — I-49 North is now funded, meaning folks in the south are no longer competing against another region of the state for a major transportation project.

“Now that the funding for I-49 North is secure, we want to re-energize support for I-49 South,” Michot said. “We feel like the stars are lining up.”