Coalition to push I-49 completion

MORGAN CITY, La. -- Supporters of completing Interstate 49 from Lafayette to New Orleans are working to pull together a nonprofit coalition with a full-time executive director to help move the project forward.

“People have talked about I-49 for 30 years. It has moved and it has stopped, but mainly, it has stopped,” said State Sen. R.L. “Bret” Allain II, R-Franklin, who is part of the core group planning the new coalition.

U.S. 90, running through St. Mary Parish, has had the future I-49 corridor designation for more than a decade.

Allain said two key factors in the renewed push to complete I-49 south will be soliciting more involvement from the industries that depend on the highway and hiring a full-time director to keep the effort focused and on track.

“One person dedicating their life to that is an absolute. It must happen,” Allain said.

Funding for that person’s salary would come from the stakeholders, Allain explained.

Executive directors from chambers of commerce between Jefferson Davis and Lafayette parishes are on board with the coalition plan, which is modeled after the LA 1 Coalition. Now organizers are reaching out as far as Orleans Parish as well as to industrial groups east of Morgan City, Allain said. They are reaching out to both types of groups in geographical areas that touch the corridor as far away as the Westbank Expressway and the Crescent City Connection Bridge.

Allain explained that if the chambers and industrial groups buy into the idea, they will encourage their members to join. Their members provide the revenue stream to pay for the executive director as well as voting to elect a board of directors. That board then puts together its platform, the promotion and funding of I-49 South as well as conducting the search for a general manager and hiring him or her as the director.

A more extensive planning meeting is scheduled for February.

“We are serious about getting this going,” said Bruce Conque, with the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.

The work to upgrade U.S. 90 to interstate standards has progressed steadily in recent years with a series of projects to build new overpasses, frontage roads and other improvements.

An estimated $5 billion in work remains for the two most expensive portions — the partially elevated stretch through Lafayette and the southern leg from Raceland into the New Orleans area.

Those would be among the largest transportation projects in recent state history, and I-49 supporters have had little success in identifying a funding source at a time when state and federal highway money is tight.

With the completion of the already-funded work at La. 318 in St. Mary Parish, U.S. 90 will be I-49 compliant from Lafayette to the Calumet Cut. Estimates for completion of upgrading the highway to interstate readiness from the Calumet Cut to the Atchafalaya River were last set at $300 million, Allain said.

However, the state Department of Transportation and Development currently is reworking designs for this area. Allain said it is hoped the cost will go down.

Several efforts have been pursued over the past decade to galvanize support for the project, including a third incarnation of an I-49 south “task force” that lost momentum soon after it launched in 2009 and a campaign to brand I-49 as “America’s Energy Corridor” in the hopes of attracting more attention.

An Associated Press report contributed to this story.

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