Gearing up for interstate push

Randolph’s ethics hearing set for March 7
January 3, 2013
OUR VIEW: Tanned, rested and ready for 2013
January 3, 2013
Randolph’s ethics hearing set for March 7
January 3, 2013
OUR VIEW: Tanned, rested and ready for 2013
January 3, 2013

Government officials and business leaders are hoping a new approach will inject life into a highway project they say is essential to the future of the Tri-parish region, and important to the U.S as a whole.

Signs along U.S. Highway 90 bear the familiar red and blue markings of the Interstate highway system with the words “Future Corridor I-49.”

Portions of the existing highway, from Morgan City to Raceland, are up to interstate standards. But money to pay for the massive project, which is promised one day to link New Orleans with Missouri, has yet to raised.

State Sen. Bret Allain (R-Jeanerette) is leading the charge for creation of a business and government coalition that will keep the pressure on federal and state financing sources for construction of the southern stretch of I-49, linking New Orleans to Lafayette.

“It is my passion to get this done. This is just too important. We talk about economic development all the time but there is no greater development we can do but to finish I-49 through these parishes,” Allain said, referring specifically to Terrebonne, Lafourche and St. Mary.

He cites census figures that show tremendous population growth along the I-10 and I-12 corridors, and studies that suggest if I-49 had been built much earlier, the parishes in the energy belt would have likely grown as well.

Concurrently, there are plans for construction of the highway from Louisiana through Arkansas and then to Missouri, but as in Louisiana, funding has been haphazard in those states.

Allain and other supporters of a proposed I-49 coalition have been checking in with Henri Boulet, executive director of the LA-1 coalition, which has secured money for various legs of construction on that highway. Boulet’s group has succeeded in linking Port Fourchon to Leeville, with future plans for a superhighway link between that town and Golden Meadow.

“I don’t mind sharing with people what we have been through the La. 1 effort to get it where it is and I wish them the best,” he said. “I think that project could do a lot for economic development. But I was very honest with them about the struggle I’ve had. Huge projects are going to face the fiscal environment in Baton Rouge and in Washington.”

Louisiana, Boulet noted, has a $300 million yearly limit on construction.

“And it will take $12 billion to bring all existing roads in the state to federal standards,” Boulet said, explaining that’s not counting wish-lists like his for La. 1 or the desires of many to see I-49 become a reality.

State Sen. Norby Chabert (D-Houma) wants to do whatever is necessary to create the interstate extension, which he maintains is not just important to state or local interests but the nation as a whole.

“When you look at this region we are the coastal hub of energy service not only to the state but the nation,” he said. “In Terrebonne and Lafourche, we are the fifth largest market in the state, but there has not been a whole lot of infrastructure investment.

“And to grow this area from a 225,000 person region to a 300,000 person region, the only thing that will do that is the construction of I-49.”

In addition to the commercial benefits, Chabert said, Nicholls State University’s future, and importance in the academic system, could well depend on the highway’s construction.

“Nicholls is the only college not directly on an interstate,” the senator said. “You put Nicholls 10 minutes away from an interstate, you could be talking an additional 1,500 or 3,000 students.”

With Port Fourchon and the improved La.1 as an economic driver, Chabert said, “It’s not really New Orleans to Lafayette, it’s Fourchon to Houston.”

Allain, Chabert and other leaders from 13 parishes affected by the future potential of I-49 will meet in Lafayette Jan. 29 – specifically where has not yet been chosen – to discuss strategy.

While there is clear support for construction of a new I-49 in the Tri-parish region, there is some trepidation.

On the east bank of Bayou Des Allemands, where Frank’s Supermarket has been a mainstay business for residents of St. Charles Parish and portions of northern Lafourche, there are concerns that an expanded I-49 replacing U.S. Highway 90 could lead to problems.

“I would think it’s not a good thing for us,” said David LeBeouf, president of the local, family-owned chain of Frank’s markets. “It would be constructed just like an interstate, they would have to have an exit, and nobody traveling is going to stop and make a U-turn. Local traffic would have difficulty getting to my store.”

Leaders from the 13 parishes affected by the Interstate-49 corridor will gather later this month in Lafayette to strategize on ways to have the project completed.