Threatened coastal stretch of Louisiana Highway One needs funding

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the July 8, 2013 edition.)

The lower section of LA Highway 1, which runs from Grand Isle in south Louisiana up to Shreveport, is "at-risk infrastructure" in Lafourche and Jefferson Parishes, LA 1 Coalition executive director Henri Boulet said last week. Speaking at a Gulf Coast Restoration Summit in New Orleans last Monday, Boulet urged officials to continue elevating LA 1 before it's too late. Barely above sea level in spots, the highway is sinking near the coast as the state's wetlands suffer from erosion and ground subsidence. Boulet's group is a non-profit working for LA 1's improvement.

"Hurricane Isaac cut into the roadbed in 21 places last August," Boulet said last week. "LA 1 now floods even in low-level storms, and road closures after storms are becoming longer and longer. Sometimes the road, which is the only one into Grand Isle, Port Fourchon and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, is shut for five or six days at a time." LA 1 has been designated by the U.S. Congress as "critical energy infrastructure," he said.

Port Fourchon is the inland hub for the Gulf's offshore oil and gas industry. The adjacent Louisiana Offshore Oil Port or LOOP offloads supertankers, pipelining crude to half of the nation's refineries.

LA 1 is the hurricane evacuation route used by thousands of offshore oil and gas workers, 1,300 residents of Grand Isle and employees at Port Fourchon. Many of them, along with tourists, become stranded when the highway is closed. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, trapped in Grand Isle several years ago after a storm brewed, had to be helicoptered to her next appointment, Boulet said. He told Landrieu then that her experience would draw some attention to the plight of LA 1.

The Louisiana Dept. of Transportation and Development is converting a 19-mile section of LA 1 from Golden Meadow to Port Fourchon into an elevated toll expressway, using federal and state money. That multi-phased, improvement project could be finished anywhere from five to fifteen years from now, depending on funding, Boulet said. The project is partially complete now but only partly financed.

So far, $43.3 million in environmental clearance, engineering and utility relocation has been done. Under Phase 1 of the overall project, work costing $318.8 million on a Leeville to Port Fourchon section is complete. On that stretch, a seven-mile, two-lane elevated highway from Leeville to LA 3090 at Port Fourchon opened in December 2011. And a four-mile, high-level, two-lane overpass, along with a toll facility, opened in July 2009 over Bayou Lafourche at Leeville.

Louisiana residents and businesses have agreed to tolls for the next 30 years to repay a federal transportation loan of $66 million and state bond sales of $78 million that partly funded Phase 1 construction. "Tolls are paying back bonds sold to private holders and will pay back the federal TIFIA loan that the project took out," Boulet said last week. TIFIA or Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans are managed by the Federal Highway Administration.

Boulet said the work done so far was urgently needed. "Highway 1 is facing a relative, sea-level rise of 9 millimeters per year--one of the highest rates on the U.S. Gulf Coast," he said. "It's subsiding at a rapid rate of 7 millimeters a year and is subject to sea-level rise of 2 millimeters yearly."

The second phase of LA 1's makeover involves construction of a $320 million, eight-mile, two-lane elevated highway from Golden Meadow to Leeville. "Because it's a large project, the state has divided this second phase into three segments," Boulet said. A first segment near Golden Meadow is needed for access to build the rest, and funding for it will include $40 million from the state and $6 million in corporate matches. The other two segments await federal and state funding, however.

Under a third project phase, plans are to build a four-lane, 19.5-mile highway from U.S. 90 to Larose for $340 million. In a fourth phase, estimated at $660 million, 19 miles of additional, two-lane elevated highway will be built from Golden Meadow to Port Fourchon along an existing structure, if traffic growth warrants it. And LA 1 from Fourchon to Grand Isle will be upgraded and elevated. These third and fourth project phases still need funding.

During Hurricane Isaac, LA 1 between Grande Isle and Port Fourchon was overtopped by water, the road's shoulders washed out in places and the stretch was closed for more than three days. Motorists didn't have an easy time after it reopened either. "You could be driving over asphalt, held up by nothing more than soil, with the risk you might fall through it and drown," Wayne Keller, executive director of the Grand Isle Port Commission, said last week. "The road was down to one lane so you couldn't pass. That hindered activity around here for awhile."

Since then, the road's been patched up, leaving it more vulnerable than ever, Keller said. "Many people question why anyone continues to live in Grand Isle but danger is the price we pay for paradise," he said. He hopes the stretch between Grand Isle and Port Fourchon will be elevated as soon as possible.

It won't be elevated this year, however. "The Grande Isle to Port Fourchon section of LA 1 is scheduled for work in a state maintenance project related to Hurricane Isaac, and it's going to public bid in August," Boulet said. "This project isn't really part of the larger LA 1 Improvement Project. The work that will be done involves widening the road bed between Grand Isle and Port Fourchon and armoring the sides of the widened bed. For the first time, that section will get a badly needed, black-topped shoulder. We're fortunate that DOTD has been able to scrape up several million dollars in funding for it." Inundated roads with black-topped shoulders in western Louisiana have fared much better than LA 1's Grand Isle-to-Port Fourchon stretch did in Isaac.

Meanwhile, raising the road between Grand Isle and Port Fourchon will be costly and no funds have been dedicated to it yet, Boulet said.

For unfunded parts of LA 1, some money could come from tens of billions of dollars in fines likely to levied against BP and divided between coastal states for the 2010 Gulf oil spill. And in a possible, longer-term source for the highway, Louisiana will receive increased, offshore oil-and-gas royalties shared with the feds, starting in 2017 under a 2006 law.

Last week, south Louisiana residents headed to the Golden Meadow-Fourchon International Tarpon Rodeo from July 4 to 6 in Port Fourchon. The trip was smoother than usual for many motorists. "I'm super-pleased that LA DOTD will man the cash toll booth around the clock all this summer in Leeville, where drivers access the new bridge," Boulet said. "We won't have the delays we've had in the past from people figuring out how to use the automatic toll-payment machine."

Southern LA 1 is critical to the nation's economy, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Dept. of Highway Safety. The agency predicted that a 90-day closure of seven miles on the lower end of the route, along with a simultaneous shutdown of Port Fourchon, would slash oil and gas production immediately and could cut U.S. gross domestic product by up to $7.8 billion over a multi-year period. end