Kennedy: Build New Orleans to Lafayette interstate

Treasurer says project should be a top priority for Louisiana

Finishing an interstate corridor between New Orleans and Lafayette is the most important building project in Louisiana and deserves immediate financial aid, state Treasurer John Kennedy said Wednesday.

The state should devote most of this year’s surplus for the improvements and a yearly portion of the state’s capital outlay budget to help make the 160-mile connection reality, Kennedy said. “That is just another way of saying we ought to prioritize,” he said.

Kennedy made his comments during a 40-minute speech to the fall meeting of the Baton Rouge chapter of the Association of Government Accountants.

The I-49 South project is essentially upgrading U.S. 90 to interstate standards.

The high speed, limited access roadway would travel from the West Bank of New Orleans, past the bayou communities of St. Charles, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, through Morgan City, and connect with I-49 in Lafayette.

That stretch, known as I-49 North, already extends from Lafayette to Shreveport and work is underway to finish the route from Shreveport to the Arkansas border.

Kennedy said that, once all the work is done, Louisiana would be part of a north-south corridor from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.

He said I-49 South would create 100,000 permanent jobs and aid motorists during hurricane evacuations.

“It would relieve traffic congestion, believe it or not, in Baton Rouge,” Kennedy said, a reference to what would be a bypass around the Capital City for I-10 traffic.

It also would connect ports in New Orleans and elsewhere with industries in the Midwest and oil industry suppliers and manufacturers between New Orleans and Houston.

However, the price tag of the project has long been a huge stumbling block, especially since the state has a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge plans.

Kennedy said officials of the state Department of Transportation and Development said last week that what was thought to be a $5 billion project may be able to be done for about $2 billion, in part by elevating fewer miles than originally planned.

But that requires federal approval and the state does not have $2 billion for the work, he said.

Kennedy, a possible 2015 candidate for governor, proposed steps that he said would get the project moving.

He said the state should use most of its surplus from the financial year that ended on June 30 — possibly $150 million — on I-49 South.

In addition, the upgrade should get dollars annually from Louisiana’s roughly $4 billion annual capital outlay budget, which Kennedy said has become a “political quagmire.”

Current spending from that fund includes $140,000 to build a fence around a subdivision in New Orleans, $400,000 for a walking trail at a private firm and another $400,000 to renovate the offices of the Junior League of New Orleans.

“We clearly are not prioritizing in our building program,” Kennedy said.

He said about $100 million from Louisiana’s unclaimed property fund could be used for I-49 South.

DOTD officials said last week that, of the 160-mile connection, about 100 miles have been finished or are under construction.