"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."
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday, December 13, 2013:
The Louisiana Supreme Court has punted on its first chance to decide whether a new state constitutional provision declaring gun possession a fundamental right could void a long list of criminal statutes that regulate firearms.
New Orleans' offense, which ranks sixth in the NFL, isn't helping many of its skill players pile up Pro Bowl-type stats. Rather, the approach of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees has enabled a wide range of play-makers to emerge periodically with high-production outings.
An ordinance phasing out a rebate businesses receive for collecting and remitting sales taxes is tabled, but it doesn’t solve the vexing issue of government revenue.
As part of a national undertaking known by industry insiders as the “Butterfly Project,” a rebranded version of The Daily Advertiser is set to launch with Sunday’s edition of the Gannett-owned paper.
Louisiana moved up a slot to 48th in the ranking of healthy states — once again, thank God for Mississippi! — so all this frettin’ about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid per Obamacare ... fuggidaboutit! We don’t need Medicaid no more!
The Denham Springs woman who placed Christmas lights in the shape of a butter finger on her roof in a display of anger directed at neighbors has doubled the trouble for the 2013 holiday season.
The 30-second commercial, to run around the state, is the Democratic senator's first TV spot in her bid for re-election to a fourth term.
It's a number that has edged up but falls far short of the thousands who are eligible for subsidized coverage.
A group of mostly higher education leaders will make recommendations to state lawmakers about how to tweak the policies governing tuition rates charged at the state's public colleges.
That would be Congressman John Fleming talking about Sen. David Vitter.
The alleged mastermind behind the bribery scheme that went on for four years under DA Mike Harson’s nose isn’t just schizophrenic, bipolar and recovering from mini strokes; he now says he has cancer.
Louisiana's higher education leaders are trying to work out a financing deal to keep the state's public colleges from running low on state cash to operate their campuses.
With their latest triumph, the Saints left little doubt about how tough they are to beat in the Superdome. Unfortunately, two of their remaining three games are on the road.
For the first time in at least five years, retired teachers, state workers and school system employees could see an increase in their pension checks.
Lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration shared a collective sigh of relief with the news that Louisiana's tax amnesty program brought in the $200 million that they used to help balance this year's budget.
Drew Brees often makes the extraordinary look routine, particularly during night games in the Superdome.
The teams were extended invitations Sunday for the New Year's Day matchup played at Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If all 44 projects are approved, about $300 million would remain in the fund set up as a down payment to help the Gulf.
Last week, the Saints gave up 429 yards to Seattle, second most in a game this season.
Since Anthony Jennings and Brooks Haack were not expected to contribute until next year at the earliest, it seemed like a sneak peek at hidden Christmas gifts.
Louisiana National Guard personnel seeking benefits for same-sex spouses will have an easier time filing the requests, despite a state refusal to let its workers process the paperwork.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera sees one potential flaw with his team's stellar defensive play so far this season. "Apparently we like to bite on the double moves," Rivera said.
Computer hackers may have gained access to the personal information of thousands of Louisiana residents who use debit cards issued by JPMorgan Chase for three state agencies, authorities said Wednesday.
Jim Purcell, who has been in the job since February 2011, notified the Board of Regents about his decision at its monthly meeting.