President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a vision; he wanted a cross-country high level road system. In 1937, he summoned then chief of the highway agency, Thomas MacDonald, to the White House and drew eight lines on a map of the U.S.: three parallel lines went from east to west and five lines from north to south.
One of the north-south lines started in New Orleans, veering north toward Kansas City and ending in Minneapolis/St. Paul — the current path of I-49 from New Orleans to Kansas City. Unfortunately, only a portion of this corridor was included in the original 41,000 miles of highway identified in the Federal–Aid Highway Act of 1956 that established today’s interstate system.
In the mid-70s, the Federal Highway Administration approved an interstate highway to run between I-10 and I-20, from Lafayette to Shreveport. Originally proposed as a toll road, Interstate 49 was subsequently funded through federal allocation.
While I-49 from Lafayette to Shreveport was being built, in 1987, Congress authorized and funded a demonstration study of an interstate route from Lafayette to New Orleans. With this study, I-49 South was born. For the most part, the selected route was the U.S. 90 corridor.
During the ’90s, as more businesses located along U.S. Hwy. 90, so many right-angle crashes with fatalities were occurring from Lafayette to St. Mary Parish that the highway was labeled “blood alley.”
In response to public outcry, the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce formed a task force of leaders from surrounding communities, and the effort resulted in naming the route from Lafayette to New Orleans the “Future I-49” corridor in the federal highway bill of 1998, “Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21).” It was also understood that the highway would be upgraded within 12 years. In October of that year in Lafayette, Gov. Mike Foster installed the first “Future I-49” sign along the route.
The Foster administration’s priority was to build a number of interchanges at key locations with an eye toward the 12-year goal. Seven interchanges were planned and built during his administration. Another has been completed since. In addition, the 42-mile segment from Morgan City to Raceland was opened to traffic in 1999. The last 25 miles of this segment were funded with $256 million from the Transportation Intermodal Model for Economic Development program.
Today, five segments remain: from I-10 in Lafayette to the airport, Lafayette airport to the Iberia Parish line, a segment within the city of Berwick in St. Mary Parish, Raceland to I-310 in St. Charles Parish, and I-310 to Westbank Expressway in Jefferson Parish.
The importance of I-49 South as the region’s economic lifeline has been well documented over the past 25 years. A report by the Lafayette Economic Development Authority — which the chamber commissioned in 2008 — led to a new name for the route, “America’s Energy Corridor,” and revealed the following:
1. One-third of the population of Louisiana lives along this highway. The highway is their lifeline when a hurricane comes.
2. Nearly 2,000 oil and gas companies operate within the corridor ranging from small businesses to companies with 3,000 employees. These companies are supporting production of 80 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and gas equivalent to almost 30 percent of the entire energy consumption in the country.
3. The corridor provides access to four of the top 10 ports in the U.S., in terms of tonnage. The corridor is home to 72 percent of platform fabrication facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.
4. Port Fourchon, accessed by the highway, services 90 percent of all deep-water rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, and it is host to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port.
5. The corridor directly connects Kansas City, a busy distribution center in the U.S., to New Orleans, a major port in the country. Once completed, it will become a significant trade route similar to I-35 in Texas.
The question remains: With such importance, why is the highway not getting its deserved attention? The answer is simple: It is not a state priority.
On Dec. 12, 2012, Missouri will celebrate completion of its portion from Kansas City to the Arkansas state line, while Arkansas is exploring ways to fund its portion. Louisiana has allocated $634 million to complete the northern portion by 2016, but no official plan exists for the Energy Corridor.
With the recent passage of the new two-year federal highway bill, “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP 21),” a window of opportunity has opened. One section of the bill allows designation of some major U.S. highways as a National Freight Network. New sources of funds will become available for these highways, and I-49 from Kansas City to New Orleans should be on that list.
The second major section of the new bill, called the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, makes available $1.75 billion dollars of low interest loans to the states to be repaid over an extended period (up to 50 years). TIFIA loans can cover up to 50 percent of the project’s cost.
These opportunities will expire in two years; we need to initiate an exploratory process now. I call on elected and community leadership to make this project their highest priority. The new bill offers a very attractive financing mechanism, and we must start investigating how we can best take advantage of it.
A variety of sources, such as state general fund, capital outlay funds, unclaimed property funds, DOTD funds, federal funds, tolls, tax increment financing revenues, local contributions and franchises could provide the needed revenues.
There’s no time to waste; we need to start the dialogue now. Our elected officials and oil and gas, business and industry leaders must come together and convince our governor that his leadership is needed. The time is now.
The former head of UL Lafayette’s civil engineering department, Kam Movassaghi served as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development from 1998 to 2004, having been appointed to the post by Gov. Mike Foster. Movassaghi is now president of C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates.