More talks Friday in I-49 south project

LAFAYETTE - A task force dedicated to finding money to complete I-49 south from Lafayette to New Orleans met Friday after a two-year hiatus, spurred by what Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel said seems to be a renewed interest in the project.

Durel, chairman of the state task force, said he had held off convening the group because the road project seemed so far from becoming a reality that, "I didn't know if there was a purpose for us to meet."

He noted Friday that there have been encouraging developments in recent months, despite the fact that there has yet to be any funding source identified for a project estimated at more than $5 billion.

The state Department of Transportation and Development is planning to start the design phase of the mostly elevated 6-mile stretch through Lafayette that would roughly follow Evangeline Thruway.

DOTD is also studying the feasibility of using tolls to partially fund I-49 South, and the agency plans to report its finding to legislators in August, said Bill Oliver, the DOTD administrator for the Acadiana region.

Durel said a frank discussion about tolls is critical to moving the project forward because prospects are dim for federal or state funding.

State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said business leaders and elected officials along the I-49 South corridor must make the project the region's top priority if it has any chance of securing major funding.

Allain is the key figure behind the recently formed I-49 South Coalition, which is working to pull together politicians, business and community leaders, and anyone else who has an interest in seeing I-49 South built.

"We are trying to create a big enough coalition that, politically, it can't be ignored," Allain said. "... The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we want to create something that squeaks pretty loud."

The renewed push to complete I-49 South could also find a more receptive audience in the New Orleans area than past efforts, said Jefferson Parish President John Young Jr., who attended Friday's task force meeting.

"My feeling is that the mood has changed," he said.

The completion of I-49 South involves mainly upgrades along U.S. 90.

Several smaller projects to build new intersections and frontage roads have brought portions of U.S. 90 up to interstate standards, but major obstacles remain, including the elevated stretch through Lafayette and final leg into the New Orleans area.