|Photos by Robin May|
|From left, Kam Movassaghi and Mark Lambert|
The best investment Louisiana can make right now for our children and grandchildren is to finish building that 100-foot wide concrete ribbon between Lafayette and New Orleans, better known as Interstate 49 South.
Yes, it’s an expensive project, although the state Department of Transportation and Development engineers have made it more palpable by proposing an amended environmental plan that trims the $5 billion cost by about 60 percent. Still, $2 billion is real money, and it’s fair to ask why, with all of our other needs, should we spend so much money on a road?
The short answer is that I-49 South isn’t just a road. It’s a route to a better life, an economic magnet that will attract businesses, jobs, entire industries and all the money those things entail. That means more tax dollars for better schools, and with a revived economy, maybe we can finally reverse the migration of our best and brightest to other states.
For too long, Louisiana has chased the golden egg, thinking the next manufacturing plant or the next big business will solve all of our problems.
It’s time for us to forget the golden egg and focus on catching the golden goose.
Here are the Top 10 reasons Louisiana should finish I-49 South:
10. Better quality of life
When communities deploy a sustainable mobility plan, they are betting on their future. As regions grow, areas that once were rural become suburban, inviting traffic congestion, air pollution and commuting delays. The small-town infrastructure that was adequate in the 1950s cannot keep up with the demands of the 21st century. Communities and regions that address these problems become communities of choice; communities that do not invest in their infrastructure begin to decay as the population makes other choices. A major benefit of I-49 South traversing through Lafayette is that it gives the community the opportunity to address quality of life issues through smart planning.
9. Congestion relief
U.S. 90 wasn’t designed to handle the traffic load it’s under in many places. Based on 2012 data from DOTD, traffic along the I-49 corridor ranges from 61,000 vehicles per day at I-10 to 44,200 a day in Broussard. The constant stop-and-start of traffic along a highway, lurching from traffic signal to traffic signal, isn’t just aggravating — it costs us millions each year in lost time, productivity and fuel. A modern, controlled-access interstate solves the congestion problem in a safe, efficient manner.
8. Attraction of new business to the region
Every year since 1986, Area Development Magazine (the top publication for businesses looking to expand) surveys the country’s top executives on the most important factors to take into account when expanding, relocating or starting a business. For the last six years, a good highway system has ranked as the No. 1 or No. 2 factor. “A business won’t go anywhere without easy access to well-maintained, high-capacity highways that connect to customers, distributors and shippers,” the 2013 article states. UPS says if all of its packages were delayed by just five minutes, it would cost the company more than $100 million a year. The region that has the interstate is the region that gets the new businesses.
7. Creation of new markets
Businesses in a completed I-49 South corridor will be in a prime position to expand their customer bases because they will have access to every market from here to Canada. Add to that the availability of tremendous intermodal transportation via Class 1 railways, the Mississippi River and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. And, having a straight shot to the Port of New Orleans opens up international trade for local businesses.
6. Emergency evacuation
One third of the population of Louisiana lives along I-49 South from Lafayette to New Orleans. Even with an improved “contraflow” evacuation plan for South Louisiana, the latest mass evacuation of the Greater New Orleans region produced major traffic problems on I-10 and U.S. 90. I-49 South would greatly improve evacuation not only for hurricanes but for all hazards, natural or man-made. Experts in the field believe that finishing I-49 will:
• Create a more rapid traffic flow
• Give drivers easier access to a network of highways, including I-10, I-49 N, I-55, I-59
• Enhance fuel planning capabilities
• Assist local and state security efforts with re-entry
• Provide a foundation for more accurate traffic planning
• Allow for the better use of information boards
5. Energy security
There’s a reason I-49 South was designated as “America’s Energy Corridor.” It is the industrial heart of Louisiana and the energy workshop for the United States. Louisiana’s offshore oil industry supplies 30 percent of the U.S. energy supply, and businesses along the I-49 South corridor keep the oil flowing. Consider these statistics, courtesy of Gregg Gothreaux of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority:
• 83 percent of all off shore vessel bases are served by the corridor.
• 72 percent of all platform fabrication facilities along the Gulf Coast call the corridor home.
• Job growth projection for 2014-15 along the corridor is estimated to be 20,300.
These companies are the business cornerstones of our economy, and their ability to expand and create new opportunities is directly tied to the transportation infrastructure on which they rely.
4. Economic Development Potential for Smaller Towns
What impact would I-49 South have on the communities between Lafayette and New Orleans? One only needs to look at what happened in the I-12 corridor in the last 30 years. The combined population of Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes was just over 250,000 in 1980. There was no industry to speak of — just large swaths of pine forests. But the mobility that living in the I-12 corridor provided fueled a population explosion. In 30 years, the population had nearly doubled. By contrast, the parishes along the unfinished I-49 South corridor grew by a modest 24 percent in that same time period (Jefferson and Orleans were omitted from this analysis because of the adverse population effects of Hurricane Katrina). I-49 South will not only revive smaller towns; it will transform them into population centers that are now part of a major economic network stretching into Canada.
3. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
According to the Federal Highway Administration, every $1 billion invested in transportation infrastructure creates 31,000 jobs. Of course there are construction jobs for people who actually are working on the new interstate, but the ripple effect goes much further. About half of those new jobs are induced jobs, primed by the economic activity generated by the construction workers, engineers, concrete suppliers, landscapers, equipment renters and others. Those people are buying furniture, new cars, televisions, clothes and groceries. But the real payoff comes once the interstate is finished. That’s when companies begin to move in, creating new opportunities and jobs for the community.
People can drive faster on an interstate than on other type of road, yet accident and fatality rates on interstates are much lower than on other roads. Here’s why:
• Interstate lanes are wider, giving drivers more room to make corrections than on a narrower road.
• Paved shoulders on the right side are at least 10 feet wide, giving drivers a safe breakdown lane.
• The controlled access nature of an interstate means there are no 90-degree intersections, one of the leading road characteristics in vehicle crashes. Interstate interchanges are wide, with tapered on- and off-ramps that allow traffic to merge, reducing the risk of collisions.
• On an interstate, opposing traffic is separated by a barrier, guard rail or wide median, so the risk of head-on collisions is reduced.
1. Louisiana Deserves It
For decades, Louisiana has watched from the sidelines as other states have moved forward with megaprojects to improve their road systems, railway networks and water ports. Meanwhile, we have been content to summon up a cheer if we see a road crew painting a new layer of blacktop on one of our aging roads. If we are serious about providing economic opportunity for our children and grandchildren, if we truly want to move forward into the 21st century, we have to build the infrastructure to support that dream. The time to act is now.