"Without a doubt, the initiative got legs in this office," says Chamber President Rob Guidry. "We worked every level of government on all this, and gradually the feds started believing us."
And while the southern leg upgrade of U.S. Highway 90 to an interstate is still a long way from reality, the fruits of their labor, $259 million, came in late July as part of a record highway and mass transit bill passed by Congress. Securing the money meant garnering support from a multi-state region, and Louisiana was a key player. Though only $59 million is for the buildout of the southern portion, it may be enough to keep the project going until a new transportation bill comes up in six years, says Lafayette businessman Bill Fenstermaker, chairman of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's I-49 South Task Force ' and one of the chamber's staunchest I-49 proponents.
Money is coming from the state as well. Last week, Blanco signed into law a bill that dedicates the use of unclaimed property to secure bonds for I-49. State Treasurer John Kennedy was the architect of that initiative.
Still, I-49 south is $1 billion away from accommodating its first travelers. "I don't think it's a catastrophe not having the money now," Fenstermaker says, noting that environmental impact studies are already under way. "You can get a lot done. The rights of way can be purchased, the engineering ' everything that's necessary to build a highway. I think they'll use the money we get to set ourselves up."
Fenstermaker maintains I-49 north, extending the roadway from Shreveport to Arkansas (where it will unite with two other interstates to reach Canada) got the lion's share of funds because it hasn't run into opposition and has already secured some rights of way. "The ones that are ready to go get the dollars first," he says.
The north has not had to fight the same battles as the south, according to Fenstermaker. The Concerned Citizens Coalition, a local group opposing the I-49 Connector, joined forces with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and filed a federal lawsuit in 2003 over a proposed elevated portion of the project that takes it through Evangeline Thruway, the Sterling Grove National Historic District and Beaver Park. "For years, officials have ignored the citizens' pleas for I-49 to loop around Lafayette, refusing to study a less destructive route which could halve the cost of the project and be built in a third of the time," said CCC's Kelly Caldwell when the group filed suit. "Instead, they approve a plan that severs our community and places the burden on our oldest neighborhoods and most vulnerable populations," added Caldwell, who lives in a turn-of-the-century home in Sterling Grove. The group's primary argument is that the project violates historic preservation law and that the Federal Highway Administration has failed to consider an alternative eastern bypass route.
"The litigation has had an effect," says Fenstermaker. "We weren't ready."
The CCC lost two court battles and on Aug. 5 asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a re-hearing of all the judges on the grounds that its June 2005 ruling conflicts with its own precedent.
"It's a delay tactic," Fenstermaker says. He and other chamber leaders remain undeterred. "We're a bunch of hard-headed people," he says.
The chamber's involvement in I-49 took root in 1992 under the chairmanship of banker Rusty Cloutier. His successor, banker Rae Robinson, formed the first local task force, and Fenstermaker continued to carry the torch. Along the way they brought in support from New Iberia, Franklin, Houma, Morgan City and New Orleans and then moved north to Shreveport (now home to the International I-49 Coalition) and on to Arkansas and Missouri, traveling throughout the region to talk to ' and win over ' anyone who would give them an audience. "They all took their turn pushing that ball up the hill," Guidry says.
Every small victory helped sustain the momentum, says Cloutier, noting that some politicians were even willing to set aside their own agendas to jump on board. For example, Franklin Mayor Sam Jones made a public commitment to sacrifice projects in his city for I-49 and then put "I-49 South" bumper stickers on every public vehicle in Franklin.
The chamber latched on to the project for three reasons: highway safety, hurricane evacuation, and jobs in the form of economic development opportunities the new interstate corridor will create. "The primary reason for me was the death toll on that highway," Fenstermaker says. "That and Hurricane Andrew, when we saw the traffic backed up [in 1992]."
A powerful political entity, the chamber group had a hand in getting one of its own, then-UL engineering department head Dr. Kam Movassaghi (who now works for Fenstermaker), into the top seat at DOTD in 1998. Just a year before, Gov. Mike Foster had appointed the first statewide I-49 South Task Force, naming as its chair Carl Bauer, a fervent I-49 activist. Bauer, who served in the state House and Senate from 1966 to 1976 and has been UL Lafayette's coordinator of government relations since the early 1990s, proved invaluable to the chamber's effort, as he had spent much of his public career pushing to make U.S. Highway 90 a four-lane roadway.
Along with consolidation of city and parish governments, Guidry, who's been with the chamber for nearly three decades, ranks I-49 as the most important initiative the business organization has ever undertaken. At times, it's also placed the local group in the state and national spotlight. Five years ago Guidry and Fenstermaker testified about the importance of the project to a U.S. House committee on transportation, and because I-49 became a multi-state effort, it also was largely responsible for Guidry being named State Chamber of Commerce Executive of the Year in 2003 and again in 2004.
Though no longer the pipe dream former DOTD secretary Frank Denton called it, I-49 south still has hurdles to jump. But Guidry is confident in the chamber's resolve. The chamber exec says politicians and groups opposed to the project have built obstacles at every turn but compares the chamber's efforts with those of a tireless canine.
"We'd run out and get the stick and bring it back, and they would be astounded," he says. "Then they'd toss it farther. But we never went away."
Black Friday shopping begins; Pope visiting Turkey; oil prices decline and more national and international news for Friday, November 28, 2014.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
The fight to clean up Lafayette Parish could get some added ammunition with two ordinances up for votes Tuesday by the City-Parish Council targeting litter-bugs.
By striking a deal to lessen the blow of health insurance changes on state workers, school employees and retirees, Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration lowered the volume of criticism but gave itself and local school boards a new budget headache.
With the airport tax coming up for a parishwide vote in about a week, the Broussard City Council and its mayor have come out in support of the proposal.
Protesters rallied peacefully in several Louisiana cities in the wake of the Missouri grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of Michal Brown.
The U.S. rep billed LSU for work allegedly performed on the same days Congress voted on major legislation and held important committee hearings on energy and the ACA.
Abysmally low participation by the public has prompted the council to scuttle the 2014 survey with plans to simplify it and try again next year.
The village now says the ordinance will likely be overturned and authorities will more vigorously enforce existing leash laws.
Bill Cassidy cast an early ballot Tuesday, seeking to draw renewed attention to a race that has fallen off newspaper front pages and away from people's minds as they plan holiday meals and shopping schedules.
Battered all night by Baltimore's relentless pass rush, Drew Brees could feel his protection collapsing and Terrell Suggs getting ahold of him as he urgently unloaded a pass to the right flat toward tight end Jimmy Graham.
After a convincing defeat at the polls on Nov. 4, Earl “Nickey” Picard has decided to let bygones be bygones with his former right-hand man Brian Pope, announcing his support for his former employee’s runoff bid to become Lafayette’s next city marshal.
Saturday the athletic department did everything possible to ensure the 2014 Ragin’ Cajun seniors remembered fondly their last home game. Rain and lightning never arrived but turbulence did in the form of the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
Even stranger than the Republican Party’s decision to hold a “unity rally” earlier this month for Congressman Bill Cassidy in a Baton Rouge bar, Huey’s Bar, was the fact that the establishment was named after Louisiana’s most famous Democrat.
Bar Code is not a gay bar.
After failing to pass a medical marijuana bill last year, state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, is telling supporters he will return in 2015 with legislation that focuses on different applications like oils and pills.
Voters, obviously, are not yet tuned into the 2015 ballot, despite the intriguing races it will host.
By now, the story of how longtime LSU coach Dale Brown discovered Shaquille O'Neal has been told many times: Brown happened upon a massive 13-year-old at an army base in Germany, stayed in touch with him and eventually became like a second father.
Fate simply wasn't ready to give the New Orleans Saints a break from longtime nemesis Steve Smith.
Lafayette Police have had a busy day.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration will use $130 million in patchwork financing from a tax amnesty program, insurance settlement, uninsured motorist penalties and other excess funds to close most of the state's midyear budget deficit.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said she disagrees with President Barack Obama's actions on immigration, hoping the latest controversy doesn't worsen her campaign difficulties.
Gay-rights advocates challenging Louisiana's same-sex marriage ban announced Thursday that they have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review their case before it is heard by a federal appeals court.
Thinking himself the “son of God,” the man charged with the 2013 killing of an officer of the Chitimacha Tribal Police will not stand trial following a ruling Thursday on his mental competency.
Either Saints coach Sean Payton doesn't want to tip Baltimore off as to who'll start in New Orleans' secondary on Monday night, or he really doesn't know yet.