While giant hurdles remain, state officials say they have found a way to cut in half the price tag for completing an Interstate highway between New Orleans and Lafayette.
“If we want to get this thing finished, this is the way to do it,” said Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development.
But even if the cost reduction — from about $6.5 billion to around $3 billion — becomes reality, the long-discussed I-49 South project still faces major financial and political obstacles.
“It is going to take people sitting down and making some difficult decisions,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
The upgraded road would extend from the West Bank of New Orleans to Lafayette, connect to the existing I-49 North to Shreveport and eventually to the Arkansas border.
State officials say about 100 miles of the 160-mile I-49 South corridor already have been or are being raised to Interstate standards.
Upgrading U.S. 90 between Lafayette and New Orleans has been talked about for more than two decades, especially in the Lafayette area.
State Treasurer John Kennedy says I-49 South would be the biggest infrastructure project in the state and deserves immediate financial aid, including much of this year’s budget surplus.
The three key pieces yet to be done are from the West Bank Expressway in Jefferson Parish to Raceland, then from Wax Lake Outlet to Berwick and from La. 88 to Lafayette.
Adley said questions remain about the size of this year’s state surplus and that, even if it was devoted to I-49 South, it would make only a small dent in the project’s budget.
Backers say the project is a key piece of efforts to connect the Gulf of Mexico to Canada for energy and other shipments.
Work is under way on the stretch from Shreveport to the Arkansas border.
Links are also planned on the western side of Arkansas to I-29 in Kansas City and I-35 North.
However, the state already has a $12 billion list of road and bridge needs, which does not include I-49 South, and no way to trim that list anytime soon.
State officials spent 17 years talking about building a $4.4 billion cargo airport near Donaldsonville. They dropped the push in 2009 because of lack of money.
Likewise, despite lots of chatter, a loop around Baton Rouge that would cost up to $4.5 billion has stalled.
How to pay for it, then, is the chief problem facing backers of the I-49 South project. Even with the possible savings, ideas for finding the needed $3 billion cover the spectrum.
Kennedy said up to $150 million of any budget surplus that is finalized this year should be used for I-49 South.
The state also should devote a portion of its roughly $4 billion annual capital outlay spending for the road, he said.
Kalivoda said the project gets $7.5 million per year from Louisiana’s unclaimed property fund, and a substantial revenue stream may develop by 2020 through sales tax revenue for roads that stems from a 2007 law.
A highway advocate who lobbies for Associated General Contractors, Derrell Cohoon, said plans like I-49 South require novel means of financing, such as tolls or public/private partnerships.
“When we look at these mega-projects, we have to look at a different way of funding,” Cohoon said.
The key reasons for the possible savings focus on a 36-mile section in Lafourche, St. Charles and Jefferson parishes.
Kalivoda said original plans called for elevating long stretches of U.S. 90, which is very expensive. After restudying the issue, he said, engineers and others concluded the state could use more of the existing highway and still boost it to Interstate standards without grave water risks.
Reworking plans for the 36-mile stretch would trim the cost from $4.8 billion to $1.3 billion, according to department figures.
Changes to another 11-mile section of U.S. 90 in St. Mary Parish would trim costs there from $460 million to $250 million, DOTD says.
Both revamped plans would require federal approval.
Kalivoda said state officials have been in touch with their federal counterparts and he is optimistic about chances of getting their OK.
However, even under a best-case scenario, I-49 South would likely take a decade to finish because of environmental reviews, public hearings and time-consuming construction.
“Even if you had all the money right now you are talking about a lot of construction,” Kalivoda said.
The president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Center, Kenneth A. Perret, has praised the I-49 South project but said winning federal approval for the less expensive version will be controversial.
“That is going to be very contentious trying to get everybody on board with that, but it is worth the effort,” said Perret, a former top state and federal transportation official.
State Sen. Bret Allain II, R-Franklin, said $100 million or so of surplus dollars could be eligible for a federal match and possibly raise $500 million.
“I think it is for the entire state, not just the region,” Allain said of I-49 South.