Economic life of LA1 businesses in limbo

Documents need protection too: Safeguard records
June 8, 2011
Elizabeth Zandvliet-Damen
June 10, 2011
Documents need protection too: Safeguard records
June 8, 2011
Elizabeth Zandvliet-Damen
June 10, 2011

Carol Terrebonne understands the importance of the oil and gas industry to the local economy, and she realizes Port Fourchon is one of the state’s, and nation’s, lifelines. But that understanding won’t save her retail seafood business if and when a new elevated highway directs traffic past her establishment.

Terrebonne owns the Seafood Shed, a seafood supply station on Bayou Lafourche, just outside of the Larose-to-Golden Meadow levee system.

Proposed plans to construct an elevated highway would direct traffic over the southern-most portion of the levee system and onward to Fourchon and Grand Isle, bypassing Seafood Shed and many other businesses and undeveloped property.

“My business is mostly out-of-town people, people going to Grand Isle and going to Fourchon. That’s why I’ll be affected big time,” said Terrebonne, who added that she contributed six figures in tax payments to the parish coffers, as based on 2009 profits.

The excluded business owners are in a state of limbo, as they watch long-term plans that will have an adverse impact on their livelihood go into motion. For Terrebonne, it seems like a prolonged path to a slow extinction, as she has no answers for the challenges an overpass would bring.

Control of the current segment of La. Highway 1 south of the levee system would revert to the parish in the event that the state pays for the construction and maintenance of a new highway.

The Seafood Shed will not be immediately forced to shutter its business. The loyal locals who do buy will continue to do so, Terrebonne believes. But she also said that eventually, as the parish-controlled segment of Highway 1 south of the levee system deteriorates and becomes susceptible to tide-change flooding, the tourist and oil-personnel business, to whom she makes the bulk of her sales, will slowly evaporate.

“The exit comes off of Leeville, right before our other location, which is in Leeville,” Terrebonne said. “The only thing I can do would be to move my retail to there, hoping the people would come off of the exit, but you don’t know. You’re still going to lose a lot of business. A lot of business.”

Henri Boulet, executive director of the LA 1 Coalition, referenced two studies that found the relative sea level rise would inundate La. Highway 1 so often that the state police would have to shut down the highway within the next 40 years.

“Remember that LA 1 is only 2 to 3 feet above sea level,” Boulet said. “The port facilities are at 6 or 7 feet above sea level, so they will do OK. But we need a dependable, out-of-the-water highway to get there.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal agreed to designate funds to design the first of three segments that comprise a new Highway 1 and connect the southern-most portion of the ring levee system to the Leeville Bridge, Boulet said.

The first segment, one mile in length, will serve as a build point for the project. Ultimately, the project in its entirety will cost about $258 million, he added.

Lafourche Parish Councilman Daniel Lorraine, speaking on behalf of Seafood Shed and the area’s other business owners, requested an economic impact study be compiled before the state goes forward and finances an elevated highway.

The councilman said 33 businesses and other undeveloped property would be ruled moot by the new highway, which would, in theory, maximize growth at Fourchon at the expense of development between Golden Meadow and Leeville.

“Doing this, you’re bypassing everybody,” the councilman said as he addressed Boulet. “You’re going to shut down most of those businesses.”

Boulet said he would talk to the state’s transportation department and inquire for the reasons it prefers a new highway as opposed to elevating the current route to flood-safe levels. He said the state conducted a study before he joined the LA 1 Coalition, and the primary concern is immediate access to Port Fourchon after hurricanes.

“If we really need something, Daniel, to secure the activity at Fourchon, you have to decide if you want something that will be able to get you there right after storms, and that will spur growth at Fourchon,” Boulet said.

And that’s something Terrebonne can wrap her mind around. No matter how frustrated and helpless she feels, she won’t target the oil and gas industry, an idea reinforced by her support of BP in the wake of an oil spill that caused her business to miss its 2009 retail sales mark by 117,000 pounds of seafood.

“To me, I need those people too, the ones in the oil field,” she said. “That’s why I don’t have nothing against them. Just like BP, I didn’t have nothing against it. We need the oil field down here.”

The $153 million bridge segment that will extend from Port Fourchon to the Tommy J. Doucet Bridge in Leeville would be completed by October 9 of this year, barring lost time from inclement weather, Boulet said.

Boulet also said the bridge’s toll system would be upgraded by December, and the alterations would allow the state to collect 95 percent of the money it’s due from traffic, as opposed to the approximately 70 percent the state is collecting in its current format.

One of the changes is “to remove the kiosks that are in place, [the Louisiana Transportation Authority] felt that they worked in bigger cities, but it really hasn’t done very well here, and in it’s place to put a toll plaza with cash options,” Boulet said.

The toll plaza will have two lanes for machine-operated cash or credit and debit card payment and one lane for people who have a Geaux Pass. The new system will accept dollars and quarters, but no one will be stationed in the booth, the coalition’s executive director said.

The on-site payment system is one of five upgrades the LTA approved for installation after it fell $670,000 short of paying the annual lien service on money bonded out for construction of the bridge.

In February, the LTA said it had collected only 71 percent of the toll payments it should have received.

The LTA will also oversee the installation of a more sophisticated software system that should better identify violators’ license plates, a method to penalize out-of-state violators, a system that alerts Geaux Pass subscribers that they need to update their credit card and a more-efficient customer service system to better handle people who feel they have received an erroneous ticket.

The Seafood Shed, the first business south of the Larose-to-Golden Meadow levee system, stands to lose economically at the expense of provoked expansion at Port Fourchon. ERIC BESSON