"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."
Mike Harson's coffers show the advantage of incumbency.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council will vote on an ordinance for final adoption Tuesday that, if approved, would give the city the green light to take over a stretch of Verot School Road from the state Department of Transportation and Development.
The Louisiana Association of Educators filed a lawsuit challenging the $60 million in spending through Louisiana's public school financing formula.
He's been out of office for nearly a decade, but former U.S. Sen. John Breaux is back on the campaign trail, urging voters to support his one-time colleague, Democrat Mary Landrieu.
The unresolved fate of the ashes left behind after Ebola waste was destroyed in Texas highlights the problem U.S. hospitals and communities could face in disposing of their own waste.
While much of the talk was about whether New Orleans could win a big game — or any game, for that matter — on the road, the conversation in the Saints' locker room was about something completely different.
State health officials told thousands of doctors planning to attend a tropical diseases meeting this weekend in New Orleans to stay away if they have been to certain African countries or have had contact with an Ebola patient in the last 21 days.
Republicans are calling on Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu to apologize after she suggested Thursday that President Barack Obama's deep unpopularity in the South is partly tied to race.
Compared to the rest of the country, Lafayette has it pretty good when it comes to the cost and speed of our Internet.
Hello Kitty turns 40; police ambush suspect caught; Knicks surprise Cavs and more national and international news for Friday, October 31, 2014.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
The Lafayette City-Parish Council will consider on Tuesday a revised plan to the transform a block in Downtown Lafayette into a mixed-use residential-retail-commercial development that doesn’t include giving title to the property to the Lafayette Public Trust Finance Authority, an arrangement the council rejected earlier this month.
Trying to combat the national undertones of Louisiana's U.S. Senate race, Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu is traveling the state this week on a sort of pork celebration tour, telling voters about the projects and aid she's delivered to Louisiana.
Ever thought that big, pink Gulf coast shrimp you ordered at the restaurant or bought from the store didn't taste juicy or salty enough? Maybe it wasn't from the Gulf.
The state treasurer won't sign financial documents needed for $200 million in borrowing or for a refinancing of existing debt until he believes they accurately explain the surplus disagreement.
Bill Cassidy voted for 97 percent of the bills signed by Barack Obama.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is joining South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on her campaign bus tour.
A New Iberia man has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a 4-year-old girl and scalding her 3-year-old brother.
A district judge decided Wednesday against sanctioning attorney/school board candidate Dawn Morris for her behind-the-scenes role in a lawsuit against Mark Cockerham.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler says Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration may have improperly destroyed records in the state employee health insurance program, in the middle of a heavily-criticized rewrite of benefit plans.
Paper cites the former ADA's "experience as a prosecutor, his demonstrated integrity, and his ideas for reshaping the [DA's] office" in urging voters to support Keith Stutes Nov. 4.
Louisiana officials have sent a letter to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene un-inviting members of the group who have recently been to ebola-affected West African countries from attending the group’s annual conference in New Orleans next week.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have to find a way to win on the road if they plan to take over first place in the NFC South.
"It is obvious that Louisiana economic performance has not outperformed the South or the United States as a whole and, in fact, has substantially underperformed..."
A state district judge said he will rule Friday on a preliminary injunction to keep some charter schools from receiving $60 million through Louisiana's public school financing formula.