Morganza to cost $13 billion

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Cliff Notes: ‘Fiscal cliff’ proving to be only the tip of the financial iceberg
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The Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system will cost $13 billion before it is built entirely based on federal standards, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ latest cost estimate released in a draft report on Friday.

Although the project has twice been authorized, it subsequently lost those authorizations and Congress has yet to allocate any money for construction of the federal system.

The vast disparity in the new projected price tag and the one from the project’s 2007 approval – is mostly due to heightened federal levee standards imposed after Hurricane Katrina. The cost was estimated at $886 million at that time.

The new report also adds 36 miles of levee to Morganza, beefing the system to 98 miles of levee, 12 floodgates and a lock in the Houma Navigational Canal, and extending it from U.S. Highway 90 in Gibson to La. Highway 1 in Lockport.

As projected, the federal share is $8.4 billion, or 65 percent, and the non-federal share (local and state government) is $4.5 billion, or more than $200 million per year over a 20-year period.

The estimate did not come as a surprise to local and elected officials, who had talked about the report’s rough drafts with reporters throughout last year.

To put it on paper, though, illuminates the daunting task of realizing the full federal levee system.

“This is a very detailed plan, but very, very expensive, and I think the first thing that it confirms is we made the right decision on going on a parallel path for trying to build the first lifts in the most vulnerable parts on our own,” said Reggie Dupre, director of Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District.

“I think certain parts (of the system) can be done. This is an ongoing effort for generations,” Dupre added, pointing out that building mammoth protection system is almost always protracted.

Studies began on Morganza to the Gulf in 1992, and the project remains in the pre-construction, engineering and design phase.

The $4.5 billion non-federal share will require funding from non-traditional sources, Dupre said. He expressed optimism that a bounty of Outer Continental Shelf energy development royalties that should start rolling into Louisiana by the end of the decade would count as state funds and be applicable to the Morganza system.

The state and local governments have already dedicated $226 million toward smaller projects that fit into the Morganza system. And in Terrebonne Parish, the levee district expects to collect roughly $300 million over the next 28 years via the half-cent sales tax voters overwhelmingly approved last December.

The corps released in addition to the PAC report the revised programmatic environmental impact statement. The reports, still in draft form, are under a 45-day public review, and the corps is soliciting comments.

The corps will host a public meeting at 6:30 p.m., Jan. 31 at the Houma Municipal Auditorium, 880 Verret St.

The protection system first received congressional authorization 12 years ago but it was contingent on the corps filing a feasibility report by Dec. 31, 2000. The corps filed its report more than a year after the deadline, so despite the corps’ favorable judgment Morganza lost authorization.

Seven years later, it was re-authorized. Weeks after the second authorization, the new federal standards were enacted and the project’s cost skyrocketed, so the responsibility returned to the corps to complete a Post-Authorization Change report, which was released Friday.

Morganza to the Gulf’s best chance for Congressional authorization is through the next Water Resources and Development Act. The last WRDA bill was in 2007, and Congress had to override President George Bush’s veto to pass it.

It’s unknown when the next WRDA bill will pass through Capitol Hill, though Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, released a WRDA draft bill last September.

Even in the best case for Morganza stakeholders, authorization does not guarantee funding. In 2011, the Congressional Research Service published a report that said more than 1,000 authorized studies and construction projects were in an appropriations backlog. Financially, the backlog exceeds $60 billion.

The most visible benefit of authorization is that it eliminates the need to prove independent utility in applications for individual reach permits, Dupre said, because the system has been approved as a whole.

“Morganza now is one of the biggest hurricane-protection projects in the whole country now that all of the efforts in the New Orleans region are wrapping up,” Dupre said. “The next big project that’s being proposed by the corps is this project.”