Toll is an option for I-49 funding

I-49 South Coalition Executive Director Mike Michot

By ZACHARY FITZGERALD zfitzgerald@daily-review.com

Funding is the major obstacle facing the completion of I-49 South from Lafayette to New Orleans so coalition members are looking at a variety of resources to upgrade sections of the interstate along U.S. 90, Mike Michot, I-49 South Coalition executive director, said Wednesday.
Michot spoke at the St. Mary Parish Chamber of Commerce Business Luncheon at the Petroleum Club of Morgan City.
Michot, who served for 16 years in the state legislature, said he started seeing some movement to upgrade U.S. 90 to interstate standards during former Gov. Mike Foster’s administration.
Foster established an I-49 South Task Force that continued during former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s term and has continued under Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.
State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, was the catalyst that brought the project to where it is today by forming the coalition, Michot said. Allain modeled the organization off the La. 1 coalition, he said.
The coalition is made up of community and business leaders who have an interest in seeing I-49 South completed, he said.
Allain asked Michot to serve as executive director of the I-49 South Coalition, and Michot accepted the position of interim director in September 2013.
The coalition is open to using tolling and other non-traditional means of paying for the project, Michot said. A variety of funding sources will have to be used to be able to complete I-49 South, he said.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development is going through a toll feasibility study to see what tolls need to be to pay for certain sections of the interstate, Michot said.
The section through Lafayette is the most expensive and involved piece of the project because it cuts through the middle of Lafayette following the existing Evangeline Thruway corridor, Michot said. That piece is projected to cost $750 million to $1 billion.
“The connector through Lafayette really is the biggest challenge. And that’s where we really have struggled coming up with the best way to fund that,” Michot said. “I think we have to look at tolling at least a portion of that connector through Lafayette.” The other major portion of the interstate project will be in the West Bank around New Orleans.
Due to opening of the Panama Canal, I-49 is designated as a high-traffic corridor, which gives the project an increased match of federal to state dollars, Michot said.
Without a dedicated coalition, funding for road projects mainly used to depend on whether politicians supported a cause and what connections they had within the government to be able to get funding, Michot said.
“The days of earmarks as we knew them in the past are pretty much gone. You can no longer tug on your legislator or your member of Congress to secure funding to come down for your particular project,” Michot said.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has recently made finishing I-49 South from Lafayette to New Orleans a top priority, Michot said. I-49 could be used as an emergency evacuation route especially during hurricanes, Michot said.
He referenced the fatal wreck several weeks ago where four people were killed in Centerville on U.S. 90. Officials are trying to save lives with upgrades to the highway along I-49 and reduce fatalities along U.S. 90, Michot said.
Traffic circles, which keep traffic moving in all directions, are going to be incorporated into interchanges from Calumet Cut to Lafayette, he said.
The Calumet Cut to Morgan City is also an expensive piece of the project that the coalition needs to identify funding, Michot said.
State Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Plaquemine, has filed a bill that would create an infrastructure bank. The bank would use money the state has to invest from pension funds and settlements, Michot said. “Government could then borrow money from this infrastructure bank with an interest rate. Then the pension plan or the state of Louisiana’s bank in essence would be the recipient or the beneficiary of this interest rate,” Michot said.
“Basically, we’d be taking our money and loaning it to ourselves. What better way to help fund infrastructure than with this model of an infrastructure bank?” Michot said. The coalition is behind that bill and pushing it during this legislative session, he said.

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